December 22, 2003
DUI plateau

The number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has stopped dropping over the past few years. Bad news, right? Well, let's take a closer look.

Alcohol-related traffic death rates increased or held steady in 19 states between 1998 and 2002, according to new federal data suggesting that efforts to curb drunken driving have reached a plateau.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's report, which was being released Thursday, calculated the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven. NHTSA considers a crash alcohol-related if a driver had anything above a 0.01 blood-alcohol level, which is far lower than the 0.08 legal limit in 45 states.


Drunken driving deaths declined markedly during the 1980s and early '90s as organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving were formed and drew attention to the problem.

NHTSA's report showed 26,173 alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1982, or 60 percent of all traffic deaths, falling to 16,572, or 40 percent, in 1999. For 2002, the figures were 17,419 alcohol-related deaths, or 41 percent of all traffic fatalities.

"We seem to be stalled or stuck at relatively the same fatality rate," said Dennis Utter, the chief mathematician for NHTSA's National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

First of all, just looking at the absolute number of fatalities is going to mask the overall trend. There are a lot more people in the US now than there were in 1982, and I'd be willing to bet that the average amount of time spent in a vehicle per person has also inched upwards over that time span. If you were to normalize the data over road-hours or road-miles, I bet the drop would be even more dramatic since 1982, and would also probably give you a slight decline since 1998.

Secondly, unless you're going to claim that a blood-alcohol level of .01 makes a driver impaired, then the truly relevant datum is the number of fatalities which involved actual, illegal DUI. Really, only those cases where the impaired driver was actually at fault matter. Again, I'm willing to bet that this number has declined more dramatically since 1982 and may still be declining gently since 1998.

Finally, we should all be wary of reports like this where the true nature of the data is obfuscated because they can and often are used as a starting point to crack down on the behavior in question. There's a point at which harsher treatment of DUI will produce minimal decreases in the fatality rate but a significant increase in traffic stops and other police activity. We need to recognize that there will always be some people who drive drunk, and they will do so regardless of the penalties for doing so - after all, people still commit murder despite the widespread usage of the death penalty. If we're doing everything we reasonably can do - and I think we're pretty close to that here - then we should be celebrating victory rather than lamenting defeat.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 22, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

You're exactly right. And not only that, but it doesn't even have to be the *at-fault* driver blowing a .01.

Let's say I've had one beer and then drive to the store. At a stoplight where I am legally and properly stopped, someone rear-ends me at a high speed and splatters me all over the windshield, killing me. The autopsy shows I had a BAC of 0.02%. I was not at fault, the person who nailed me has no alcohol in their system, and the NHTSA calls it "alcohol-related."

Most studies I've seen (at least among groups that don't end with "ADD") indicate that the inflection point in the BAC-versus-accident-rate graph is around 0.12 to 0.15. Now it may be reasonable to set a "limit" somewhat below that, but at some point it becomes absurd. The number of accidents among folks blowing less than .10 are rather small, and there's no evidence to suggest that these people get into accidents at a significantly higher rate than the population overall. (i.e. if 2% of the people on the road had a BAC of .04, then it ain't alarming if 2% of all accidents are caused by someone blowing a .04, and making criminals out of someone having two beers after the company picnic does *zero* for highway safety if that were the case.

The law enforcement emphasis on DUI, I think, should go onto two groups:

* Seriously intoxicated drivers (i.e. above about a .15);
* Repeat offenders (who repeatedly blow something over a *reasonable* threshold).

There are too many people out there who made one mistake and learned from it who are now bearing a scarlet letter for life. I'm one of them. I blew a .13 in some small country town on a road trip when I was 23 years old many years ago, on a night where I never intended to drive after pulling into the motel for the night. Yes, 0.13% is legitimately DUI under any reasonable standards, and I deserved every bit of my actual sentence. But I think an ongoing social stigma and a black mark for all future potential employers and certification/licensing organizations to see FOR LIFE, for *one* lack of judgment many years ago, is way too harsh in the general case.

So yes, I guess I have a bit of a personal stake in this discussion. The problem with the ADD groups and the use of "alcohol related" statistics is that they form the basis for a neoprohibitionist movement. (Even Candy Lightner, the founder of MADD, left it after expressing frustration that they were less against legitimate *drunk driving* than against drinking in general.)

The vast majority of accidents caused at least in part by alcohol came when the offender blew well over .10%. By constantly lowering the standards for DUI rather than *serious* punishment for repeat offenders and those who blow excessively high BACs, we're engaging in "feel good" legislation, doing little to reduce *serious* and *chronic* drunk driving, and making criminals out of many people who were barely, if at all, a risk to society.

Below a .10, there are so many more activities that are at least as dangerous while driving -- eating, putting on makeup, shaving, talking on cell phones. Where are the ADD organizations on these? Are they for highway safety or temperance?

The National Motorists Association (NMA) has a great series of articles about the DUI problem and how government is failing to address the real problem -- VERY high BACs and repeat offenders on their website at

Posted by: Tim on December 22, 2003 3:45 PM

The number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has stopped dropping over the past few years. Bad news

Might want to reread that, and look at what you're actually saying :)

Posted by: Buhallin on December 23, 2003 10:34 AM

No, I think that's right. The story notes that the downward trend in alcohol-related fatalities has stopped. Normally, one would think of that as being bad. All I'm claiming is that the numbers they give do not necessarily support that conclusion.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on December 23, 2003 1:55 PM