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Drunk Driving: Is the Glass Half-Empty?

Last post, I gave you the good news: in 1982 there were 1.64 alcohol-related road fatalities per 100 million miles driven, and in 2007 there were only 0.43. There are a number of reasons for this terrific achievement: publicity, education, harsher penalties, stricter enforcement, and economic incentives.
Time to toast in celebration? Not quite. Because the curious fact is there’s a remarkable disconnect in our perceptions of DUI. Most of us are quite happy to believe that we have drunk driving under control and that further tough measures are unnecessary. Yet at the very same time we witness drunk driving laws being broken all the time – including by ourselves.
There are over 75,000 bars in the United States. Last time you were in one, did you really believe that every person in the room was getting home via cab or designated driver?
The last time you threw a party did you and your friends sit around drinking chocolate milk? If not, did everybody sleep over that night?
And let’s be honest: how many times have you climbed behind the wheel after a couple? I know, you’ve never been pulled over, which makes it tempting to think you’re not a drunk driver. But according to Paul Zador, Sheila Krawchuk, and B. Moore, the average person who is caught driving drunk has already gotten away with it 87 times. How about you?
I know, I know, you and your party guests weren’t really “drunk.” But despite the fact that it’s comforting to believe that all is dandy as long as you’re below the legal limit, E.J.D. Ogden and Herbert Moskowitz point out that the legal definition of DUI is fundamentally misleading.
Any amount of alcohol impairs you. According to one study, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05, which you attain after two drinks (very roughly, depending on your weight), and which is well below the legal limit, leaves a person with about a 38 percent increased risk of crashing. So, in the year 2000 alone, an estimated 2,600 people were killed in accidents involving drivers who were intoxicated but not technically under the influence. (See this from Dexter Taylor, Ted Miller, and Kenya Cox.)
(A third drink roughly multiplies the crash risk by about 2.7; a fourth by almost 5. Things skyrocket from there. See this from Richard D. Blomberg, Raymond C. Peck, Herbert Moskowitz, Marcelline Burns and Dary Fiorentino.)
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a person is killed by a drunk driver on average every 45 minutes. A person is injured on average every minute.
According to Taylor et al., in 2000 only about one in every 140 miles driven in the U.S. was traversed by a legally drunk driver. Yet in 2007, 31.6 percent of America’s 41,059 traffic deaths involved at least one person with a BAC over the limit. About three in every 10 of us will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some point during our lives.
And these figures are almost certainly understatements, since police undoubtedly fail to detect the alcohol in many cases.
In part due to these fatalities and injuries, drunk driving crashes cost us over $114 billion in the year 2000 alone. In today’s dollars, that’s about two-and-a-half times what it cost us to bail out GM.
And to make this worse, Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that 63 percent of drunk driving’s costs are borne by others besides the intoxicated drivers. For example, we all pay for drunk driving through higher car insurance premiums.
Ted R. Miller, Rebecca S. Spicer and David T. Levy estimated that each mile driven by someone with a BAC over 0.08 costs society about $5.48 (1999 dollars) vs. about $0.11 for each sober mile. These costs include “medical care, public programs (police, fire, emergency medical and emergency transport), property damage, future earnings and lost quality of life.” Taylor et al. have written that each drink consumed costs us about one dollar due to the increase in alcohol-related crashes.
Lest you think this carnage is inevitable, when it comes to DUI the United States fares very poorly compared to other nations. The percentage of our fatal crashes which involve a drunk driver (as opposed to only sober parties) is higher than that of every other industrialized nation for which I’ve seen data, with the lone exception of Canada. As of 2004, the Japanese rate was about one-third of ours and the British rate about one-half. See this from the WHO and the World Bank.
(Then again, while we’re more likely to mix alcohol and driving, the Brits are far more likely to mix alcohol and watching soccer or going on holiday in Greece, which can also be pretty hazardous.)
The international comparisons show that we could be doing a lot more than we are, and last time I checked the Japanese and British civilizations hadn’t come crashing to the ground thanks to less drinking and driving. More could be done if we really had the willpower, and next time I’ll discuss some measures we could be taking. Then you can ask yourself the important question: how much am I really willing cut back on my partying to save lives?
(Addendum: Due to an editing mistake, an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that “A third drink roughly multiplies the crash risk by about 2.7 percent; a fourth by almost 5 percent.”)