Alcohol Involved Fatalities in the U.S.

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We examined data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to find who was most at risk to be at fault, most at risk to be a victim, and the true cost for those involved from both perspectives. And even though you may be an adult or a college freshman who has heard it all before in high school health class, it’s important to always be aware of just how many drinks it takes for you to be over the limit.

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 What Factors Influence Alcohol Related Fatalities?

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Are colder weather states more likely to be involved in Alcohol Related Fatalities?

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How “Fine” Are You?

We’ve all heard the term “lightweight” before, and that is mainly because there is scientific evidence to back it up. It takes far fewer drinks for someone weighing 100 pounds to find themselves over the legal limit than for someone weighing 200 pounds. But the effects of a .08 BAC are the same for everyone, no matter your size or gender. It’s unlikely that you’ll have a breathalyzer on hand to test what your BAC is, so it’s important to always be aware of how many drinks you’ve had.

To expand upon that, given the craft beer craze and the propensity of making yourself drinks at home that are much stronger than those made for you at the bar, it’s always important to be aware of how much alcohol content is in your drink. A lot of beers have more than the standard 5% ABV used to measure a single drink, which means that you can’t drink anywhere near as much of that as you could a light beer before finding yourself over the legal limit. There are many occasions that call for a drink, but carelessness in what you do after those drinks is where a good night can turn bad real quick.

Young and Inexperienced

We all know that the legal age of consumption is 21 – there are states with exceptions to consumption and possession – and most states have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to minors and alcohol. That doesn’t mean that most Americans haven’t had a drink by the time they reach 21; in fact, 65 percent of those 18 and younger have had a drink in their lives. On top of that, drivers aged 16-20 accounted for 17 percent of the total fatalities related to car accidents involving alcohol; those 21-24 comprised 30 percent of the total, the highest of any age group.

Penalties for a DUI are much more severe for those underage. Fines vary from state to state but if you are involved in an accident with alcohol in your system, you can count on paying a few thousand dollars in fines and losing your license for a while, even if it’s your first offense. And not many things are worse than losing your license as a teenager. Except of course prison, which depending on how far over the legal limit you are or if you’re responsible for injuries, is a possibility as well. Some states have a .02 BAC minimum for those underage to prevent false readings from mouthwash or gum, but the zero-tolerance policy of other states mean that, even if you blow a .01, you’ll be arrested.

Repeat Offenders and Innocent Bystanders

One of the more troubling statistics for DUIs are the amount of drivers who have been arrested for the same offense before. It is estimated that 25 percent of drivers arrested or convicted fall into this category, and while that number has declined in recent years, one-fourth is still a very high percentage. Currently, there are only 21 states that require a mandatory ignition interlock system for first-offenders, despite 79 percent of respondents to a AAA poll saying they would support such initiatives.

However, the interlock is not completely fail-safe. It does reduce the likelihood of a repeat offender by 67 percent, but some counties are reporting problems. One in California found that only 27 percent of those required to install the device actually do so, which means a lot of people are driving with a suspended license or not at all. These results are not typical though, as 97 percent of drivers in the entire state of Michigan follow through with the program, and only 2.8 percent become repeat offenders. Nationwide, interlocks are responsible for a 70 percent reduction in DUI arrests.

Of greater concern than the number of drivers being arrested who perhaps shouldn’t have been driving in the first place, are the passengers and pedestrians that fall victim to someone else’s poor decision. Sadly, 209 children 14 and younger died as a result of being in an accident caused by an impaired driver. Approximately 29 percent of those kids were occupants of other vehicles. The tragic reality is that this just happening once is too much, and passengers, whether with the driver or in a different car, of all ages make up 27 percent of the total fatalities. The number of innocent pedestrians killed makes up eight percent of the total.

When and Where Alcohol-Related Accidents Happen

The increased likelihood of a DUI happening at night may be obvious, but just how much more is startling. These accidents happen at four times the frequency at night compared to the day, and that gap only increases on the weekend. The rate of those killed during holidays is also very high. New Year’s, the Fourth of July and Labor Day have the highest frequency, as 44, 39 and 38 percent, respectively, of the car accident deaths during these holidays happen as the result of a drunk driver.

There also appeared to be a direct correlation between states that consume more alcohol and those with a higher frequency of DUI occurrences. North Dakota, Delaware and Montana were the worst three of this category; North Dakota had the highest rate of fatal accidents involving alcohol, and the fourth highest gallons of alcohol consumed. Delaware was sixth and third, Montana was fifth and six th in each respective category.

Measures Taken to Prevent

Over the past few years, many steps have been taken to cut down on the frequency of DUIs. We’ve mentioned mandatory interlock systems for first time offenders and zero-tolerance policies for those underage, but other efforts are in place as well. Sobriety checkpoints, media campaigns and instructional programs in schools are just a couple of ways the government and local law enforcement are attempting to keep the roads safe. Friends and family can do their part as well by simply talking to those whom they feel could be at risk, because those who drink a lot or have prior convictions are more likely to be arrested for drunk driving.

Some do question the effectiveness of such programs, though. Checkpoints are especially tricky, in part because 12 states view them as unconstitutional; so it’s tough to reduce occurrences of drunk driving nationwide when many police officers believe them to be a much more reliable way to curb DUIs than simple patrol. According to the most recently available data, drivers in the U.S. admit to driving within two hours of having alcohol one billion times per year. This equates to only one arrest being made for every 88 instances of someone driving over the legal limit. Checkpoints have been found to reduce alcohol related accidents by 17 percent, but some believe that these checkpoints are improperly used because far more citations are issued for a broken taillight or driving without insurance than for a DUI.

The state and federal governments can only institute so many programs. The majority of the responsibility still lies with the driver. If you feel like you’ve had too much, don’t drive. It’s estimated that alcohol-involved crashes cost a total of $236 billion in 2015. A $40 Uber home (and again to get your car in the morning) or crashing on your friend’s couch is far cheaper than the fines, court costs and jail time you could be faced with if you cause an accident while driving drunk.