NHTSA Data: Progress on Drunk Driving Deaths Slipped in 2015

Last summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its initial findings on U.S. traffic deaths during 2015, announcing that 10,265 people were killed in drunk driving crashes that year. Now, NHTSA’s latest fact sheet provides a more complete picture of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities in 2015 (the most recent year for which data is available).

Who’s most at risk?

NHTSA’s data looked at fatal crashes involving a driver with a BAC of .08 or higher. Of the 10,265 people killed in alcohol-related crashes, more than three-quarters were either the impaired driver (63%) or a passenger in the impaired driver’s vehicle (15%). Pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-occupants accounted for 933 deaths (9%). And of the 181 children killed in drunk driving crashes, just over half were traveling with an impaired driver.

Age and gender of impaired drivers

Over 70% of alcohol-impaired drivers involved in traffic fatalities were under the age of 35, and 16% were 16- to 20-years old. However, NHTSA noted that these percentages have decreased over the past decade, while fatal crashes with impaired drivers over the age of 55 have ticked up slightly.

Furthermore, the 2015 data shows that “there were 4 male alcohol-impaired drivers involved for every female alcohol-impaired driver involved (7,595 versus 1,761).”

Nights and weekends still most dangerous

According to NHSTA, the “rate of alcohol impairment among drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2015 was 3.5 times higher at night than during the day (32% versus 9%).” In addition, nearly twice as many alcohol-related traffic fatalities occur during weekends (6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Monday) compared to weekdays.

Driving record an indicator of issues

Legally intoxicated drivers involved in a fatal crash often have a record of traffic incidents. The data shows, “Drivers with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher involved in fatal crashes were 4.5 times more likely to have prior convictions for driving while impaired (DWI) than were drivers with no alcohol (9% and 2%, respectively).” In addition, of this group 18% had a previous crash, 24% had a prior speeding conviction, and 26% had previously had their license revoked or suspended. The data looked back 5 years.

BAC readings

The fact sheet notes that the most frequent BAC readings for drivers involved in a fatal crash range between .14 and .18, and nearly 6,900 alcohol traffic fatalities involved a driver with a BAC of .15 or higher. In addition, NHTSA also notes that there were 1,833 drivers with a BAC between .01 and .07 who were involved in a fatal crash.

Read the entire 2015 Traffic Safety Facts on alcohol-impaired driving.

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Three States May Reduce BAC Limit for Drunk Driving

The current BAC limit for drivers in all 50 states is 0.08, but if some lawmakers get their way, that could soon change.

Since 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called on states to reduce the legal BAC for drivers from 0.08 to 0.05. The agency notes that research shows the risk of a fatal crash more than doubles by the time someone reaches the current drunk-driving limit. In addition, lowering the standard would bring the U.S. in line with much of the rest of the world.

Lower “per se” BAC

If passed, bills introduced this session would make Washington, Utah, and Hawaii the first states to follow the NTSB’s recommendation. Washington’s House Bill (H.B.) 1874, Utah’s H.B. 155, and Hawaii’s Senate Bill (S.B.) 18 would lower the “per se” blood and breath alcohol concentration for DUIs to 0.05, meaning that drivers who test at or above that limit would automatically be considered legally impaired. The bills in both Washington and Utah also expressly apply the 0.05 limit to anyone operating or deemed in control of other types of vehicles, such as boats, aircraft, and off-road vehicles.

The wrong focus?

Some officials and safety advocates are applauding the bills as a step toward reducing the number of drunk driving deaths, but the move is also drawing some criticism. Alcohol industry groups actively oppose a change, arguing that lawmakers should instead focus on hardcore drunk drivers. And when the NTSB issued its recommendation to lower the legal BAC for driving in 2013, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) said they preferred to focus on other strategies, like high-visibility DUI enforcement and additional ignition interlocks. Some critics also note that many states already allow drivers with legal BACs to be charged with drunk driving if there is additional proof of impairment, such as a failed roadside sobriety test.

Alcohol-impaired vs. alcohol-involved crashes

But supporters of a lower limit argue that the 0.08 standard is out-of-date with current research about impairment, and a change could save hundreds of lives each year. The latest stats on traffic fatalities may support that claim.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notes that in 2015 there were 10,265 alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities involving a driver who had a BAC at or above 0.08. However, that number doesn’t include deaths where a driver had a BAC between 0.01 and 0.07. There were more than 1,800 such drivers involved in a fatal crashes in 2015. Supporters of a lower legal BAC note that these numbers suggest that alcohol may be a contributing factor in many crashes even if it isn’t the primary cause.

What do you think of these bills? Take the poll below and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Infographic: St. Patty’s Day Drinking and DUIs

St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and if you are planning to honor the day by wearing a bit o’ green or hoisting a pint you’re not alone. Surveys show that more than half of Americans over 18 plan to actively celebrate the holiday, and for many that includes downing an alcoholic beverage (green or otherwise).

The trend of boozing it up in honor of St. Patrick’s Day is a fairly modern trend in the holiday’s thousand-year history, but it is one that many people embrace. More than 13 million pints of Guinness will be consumed across the globe on St. Patrick’s Day (up from about 5 million per day normally), and nearly a third of  U.S. adults plan to attend a party in a bar or restaurant. In many cities drinking starts in the early morning and doesn’t peak until after 8 p.m.

It’s no wonder, then, that alcohol-related crashes and dangerous cases of binge drinking spike on St. Patrick’s Day and in the early hours of the following day. So before you head out for a pint, take a few minutes to check out this infographic that highlights the unlucky truth about St. Patrick’s Day, binge drinking, and drunk driving. Share the infographic, and see below for options to view, print, or embed it on your own site.

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“Place of Last Drink” Helps Identify DUI Hot Spots

An increasing number of counties and states have launched databases to track where DUI offenders downed their last drink before getting behind the wheel, and supporters say the information is helping communities reduce drunk driving.

During an arrest or crash investigation, officers try to identify where a suspected drunk driver was served or bought their last drink. The information is then entered into a central database, where it can be compiled and accessed by law enforcement and other officials.

Hard data for better DUI enforcement

Many DUI officers already have a sense of which bars and restaurants are more likely to over serve customers. But actively tracking the information allows departments to objectively identify problem locations, as well as uncover patterns in DUIs such as the most common days of the week and average BACs.

Critics argue that the main purpose of collecting the data is to drive up DUI stops and related fines by “sitting” on known DUI hot spots. They also question the accuracy of information obtained from drunk drivers. But supporters contend that collecting the data over time counteracts the occasional inaccuracy, and it helps law enforcement concentrate DUI patrols and enforcement efforts in areas they will do the most good.

Working with businesses to stop drunk driving

Tracking a drunk driver’s last drink can also help prevent drunk driving and other alcohol-related issues. When a bar or alcohol retailer regularly shows up in the database, law enforcement can educate the business’s staff about spotting intoxicated patrons and the dangers of over serving, or increase awareness about alternative rides home. When combined with information on the age of a drunk driver, place-of-last-drink databases can identify establishments that serve underage drinkers. And if enforcement and education efforts don’t solve the problem, the data can help cities and counties make informed decisions about a business’s liquor license.

National backing

According to the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association, “Research has shown that increased enforcement on establishments identified by DUI arrestees led to a 36% decrease in DUI arrests from those sites.” The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has also urged better tracking of offenders’ place of last drink in their recommendations to reduce impaired driving. Yet relatively few states collect the information.

Do you think tracking a drunk driver’s last drink is an effective tool to prevent DUIs?


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WI Supreme Court Rules Against Drunk Drivers in Two Cases

Wisconsin has a reputation for leniency when it comes to drunk driving, but two recent decisions by the state’s highest court could make it easier to obtain evidence in drunk driving cases and prosecute impaired drivers.

Warrantless blood draws OKed in some cases

David Howes was unconscious and seriously injured after hitting a deer with his motorcycle in 2013. While investigating the crash, a sheriff’s deputy discovered that Howes had three prior convictions for drunk driving. Under Wisconsin law, a driver with prior OWIs may not drive with a BAC over 0.02. One of the EMTs who transported Howes’ to the hospital reported a strong smell of alcohol on Howes’ breath.

In the ER, the deputy asked hospital staff to take a blood sample from the still unconscious Howes. The results showed a BAC of 0.11 two hours after the crash. Because he didn’t consent and the deputy didn’t seek a warrant, at trial Howes argued that the blood results weren’t admissible. The trial court agreed, but the state appealed the decision.

In March the court ruled on State v. Howes, agreeing with the state that exigent circumstances justified a warrantless blood draw. As such, the results of the test could be used against Howes. The court noted that the time required to investigate the accident and transport Howes to the hospital created a risk that evidence—in this case Howes’ BAC—would be destroyed.

The decision wasn’t unanimous, however. Two justices argued that because Howes was unconscious, he had no opportunity to give or refuse consent. In addition, the justices felt that the sheriff’s deputy had plenty of time to seek a warrant before asking the hospital to take a sample. Howes’ lawyer plans to appeal to Wisconsin’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that a warrant is usually required to draw blood from a suspected drunk driver.

Juries can hear about breath test refusals

Early this month in State v. Lemberger  the Wisconsin Supreme Court reaffirmed that prosecutors can bring up a DUI suspect’s refusal to take a breath test at trial.

In 2014, Gary Lemberger was pulled over for what turned out to be his fourth OWI offense. During his trial, the prosecutor told the jury that Lemberger’s refusal of a breath test after his arrest showed “a guilty conscience” and was “proof positive that [Lemberger] knew he had been drinking.” The trial judge also instructed the jury that they could consider the refused test in their deliberations.

Lemberger appealed for a new trial, arguing that he had a constitutional right to refuse a breath test and that his refusal couldn’t be presented as evidence of his guilt. But under Wisconsin’s implied consent law, drivers cannot legally refuse a breath test once they’ve been arrested.

Questions persist on implied consent, warrantless blood draws

Wisconsin’s recent rulings reflect the persistent questions and concerns about implied consent and warrantless blood draws. In 2015, thirteen states supported a request by Colorado to have the U.S. Supreme Court review its 2013 decision on blood draws, but the court declined. Several state courts have struck down warrantless blood draw provisions in “no refusal” and implied consent laws. Wisconsin’s rulings seem to run counter to that trend, and it will be interesting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court revisits the issue.

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#CincodeDrinko, #DrinkodeMayo Trend on Social Media

Along with New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo has become one of the days of the year Americans most associate with drinking. A quick look at social media shows thousands of posts tagged with two of the holiday’s nicknames: Cinco de Drinko and Drinko de Mayo.

But while many people are looking forward tequila-laced drinks and sombreros, law enforcement agencies are gearing up for more drunk drivers on the roads, especially because this year’s holiday falls on a Friday.

Why we drink on Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a Mexican battle victory over the French, didn’t gain wide-spread popularity as a U.S. holiday until the 1960s, when it became a way for Mexican-Americans to celebrate their heritage and for Anglo-Americans to learn about Mexican culture.

In the 1980s, alcohol companies saw the holiday as a prime marketing opportunity, and the link between Cinco de Mayo and drinking began. Many bars and restaurants now emphasize the connection in their advertising with “Cinco de Drinko” and “Drinko de Mayo.”

Friday holidays mean more drunk driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), between 2011 and 2015, 270 people died in drunk-driving crashes during the Cinco de Mayo holiday period, and nearly a third of all traffic deaths on Cinco de Mayo involve an alcohol-impaired driver. The danger also extends beyond May 5th, culminating with record rates of DUIs into the morning hours of the following day.

This year Cinco de Mayo falls on Friday. NHTSA reports twice as many drunk driving crashes occur on weekends, and holidays tend to increase that trend. In addition, data from Alcohol Monitoring Systems shows that drinking violations by monitored, repeat DUI offenders are generally two to three times higher when a holiday falls on a weekend compared to when it takes place on a weekday.

Celebrate safely

Check out these safety tips to make sure your Cinco de Drinko ends with nothing worse than some embarrassing sombrero pictures on Facebook:

  • Make plans for a sober ride home before you head out for the night. Even when people believe impaired driving is wrong, those beliefs can go out the window after a few drinks. Line up a designated driver, program a cab company’s number into your phone, sign up for a service like Uber or Lyft, or arrange to stay the night before you take the first sip.
  • Understand how much you are really consuming. Margaritas account for nearly half of all drinks ordered on Cinco de Mayo, but many people don’t realize that the average margarita is equal to two to three “standard” drinks. Pace yourself and alternate alcoholic beverages with water.
  • Leave your car at home. You’ll avoid traffic and DUI checkpoints and maybe even save on parking. Have everyone in your group use ride sharing TO your destination. Buddy up with friends who live nearby. If you don’t have your car, you won’t face the choice later—when you’ve been drinking—about the right thing to do.

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Uber faces steep fine for drunk driving complaints

For the past couple of years, Uber has touted data that suggests its ridesharing service reduces DUIs and drunk driving crashes in areas where Uber usage is high. In particular Uber has tapped into this claim by partnering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and marketing free rides on days known for heavy drinking, like St. Patrick’s Day.

But the validity of those claims has been questioned by some, and now the company is facing criticism and fines over claims that it didn’t do enough to prevent or stop Uber drivers who drove while intoxicated.

Records show that between August 2014 and August 2015, Uber received more than 2,000 complaints from California riders who suspected their driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. California regulations requires cab and other ride-hailing companies to have a zero-tolerance policy toward drunk and impaired driving.

However, a review of the complaints found that Uber banned only about a quarter of the accused drivers. The company also only took immediate action—within an hour—in a handful of cases. And in more than a hundred cases, the company failed to suspend service providers or investigate complaints of drunk driving. California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has recommended a $ 1.13 million fine in response to the findings.

Uber says that since the time of the cited complaints it has taken steps to improve the speed and way it handles suspected drunk drivers. And it is important to note that the reported cases make up a very small number of the hundreds of thousands of Uber rides in the same time period.

Ridesharing apps like Uber have certainly made it much easier for people who have had one too many to get a safe and sober ride home. But California’s findings could dampen Uber’s desire to be seen as a silver bullet for drunk driving.


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UK Sees Shift in Alcohol Crimes with Around-the-Clock Drinking

In 2005, the U.K. started allowing pubs to extend how late they can serve alcohol—including the possibility to serve 24 hours a day—and the country’s Police Superintendents’ Association (PSA) says the change has led to an increase in alcohol-related crime during early morning hours.

Calls to modernize alcohol service

Prior to Britain’s updated licensing laws, 11 p.m. signaled last call in U.K. pubs. Those in favor of extended and around-the-clock public drinking argued that the early cut off was outdated, especially in comparison to alcohol laws in much of the rest of Europe. In addition, supporters argued that changing the law would curb the tendency for pub patrons to down more drinks as the clock ticked closer to 11 p.m.

Despite concerns that the change would lead to higher rates of drinking and alcohol-involved crime, those problems don’t seem to have emerged. In 2015 the BBC reported that binge drinking was actually lower than before extended hours took effect, and alcohol-involved crime had remained about the same.

Later drinking hours strain police

But while the number of crimes hasn’t changed much, their timing has. The PSA cited examples like Manchester, where the percentage of crimes between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. involving drunk offenders has grown from 8% to more than 20% since 2003. This timing poses challenges for police departments that are often at their lowest staffing levels in the predawn hours. Budgetary constraints mean that departments can’t simply add officers to later shifts without stretching resources during other times of the day.

Extending drinking times in the U.S.

On the other side of the pond, a number of U.S. states are considering similar changes to their licensing laws. For example, earlier this month Tennessee’s governor signed a bill allowing restaurants that are open 24/7 to serve alcohol all day except between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. On the west coast, California is considering Senate Bill 384, which would extend last call in that state to 4 a.m. Supporters believe letting bars and restaurants serve alcohol later and longer will support tourism and the nighttime economy.

The U.K.’s experience could provide a real world case study for similar changes in the U.S. What do you think of extending public drinking hours?

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