Background on: Alcohol-impaired driving

Overview

Alcohol is a major factor in traffic fatalities. There was an alcohol-impaired traffic fatality every 50 minutes in 2016, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). About 10,000 people a year lost their lives in alcohol-impaired crashes between 2000 and 2016. During the same period alcohol-impaired crash fatalities accounted for about 30 percent of all crash fatalities. Alcohol-impaired crashes are those that involve at least one driver or a motorcycle operator with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or above, the legal definition of alcohol-impaired driving.

Combating the alcohol-impaired driving problem

Despite significant reductions in alcohol-related fatalities in the past 30 years, progress stalled in the mid-2000s as fatalities plateaued at 10,000 lives a year lost. Organizations such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Governors Highway Safety Administration and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have developed blueprints designed to prevent alcohol-impaired deaths. While about two dozen specific laws and administrative solutions have been identified, most organizations have focused on a handful of laws that have been proven to be effective in reducing fatalities involving alcohol-impaired driving.

All states and the District of Columbia define impairment as driving with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) at or above 0.08 percent. In addition, they all have zero tolerance laws prohibiting drivers under the age of 21 from drinking and driving. Generally, the BAC limit in these cases is 0.02 percent. The definition of alcohol-impaired driving had been consistent throughout the United States until 2017 when Utah enacted a bill, effective December 30, 2018, that lowered the limit defining impaired driving for most drivers to 0.05 percent BAC, the lowest in the nation. Campaigns combating alcohol-impaired driving especially target drivers under the age of 21, repeat offenders and 21-to 34-year-olds, the age group that is responsible for more alcohol-related fatal crashes than any other. Young drivers are least responsive to arguments against impaired driving, according to NHTSA.

A major tool in preventing fatalities is discouraging impaired driving which requires strong laws and enforcement. Laws that enforce the BAC level are administrative license revocation, where a driver’s license is immediately taken away if a BAC tests proves the driver’s BAC is over 0.08 percent or the driver refuses to take a BAC test. Well-publicized programs that bring attention to the problem are important deterrents, and include sobriety checkpoints, where law enforcers screen drivers for evidence of impaired driving.

Another key tool is preventing repeat offenses. Research has underscored the danger of repeat offenders. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said that out of the 1.5 million arrests of impaired drivers each year, one-third are repeat offenders. Based on data for 2007, the agency said that drivers with a BAC of 0.08 or higher involved in fatal crashes were eight times more likely to have a prior conviction for driving while impaired than drivers who had no alcohol in their blood. A report published in May 2010 by the American Journal of Public Health studying over 100 million driving records spanning the years 1973 to 2008 found that the recidivism rate among first offenders more closely resembles that of second offenders than of nonoffenders. This finding indicates that leniency for first offenders is not appropriate, according to the Director of Law Enforcement at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Research collated by the National Traffic Law Center and MADD found that first offenders are very likely to have driven impaired before their first arrest. Studies found that on average, one arrest is made for every 88 instances of driving over the legal limit defining alcohol-impaired driving.

Ignition interlocks, which require drivers to blow into a breathalyzer-like device to ensure the individual is sober before allowing the vehicle to start, have been shown to reduce fatalities. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found in a report released in January 2017 that traffic fatalities declined by 7 percent in states that mandate ignition interlocks for first-time alcohol-impaired offenders. The researchers studied traffic fatalities for about five years before states began passing interlock laws in the late 1980s through 2013, when all states required them under some circumstances. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has studied ignition interlocks and based on the strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing re-arrest rates recommends their use. In March 2018 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported that that laws requiring all impaired driving offenders to install ignition interlocks reduce the number of impaired drivers in fatal crashes by 16 percent. The IIHS says that if all states adopted the most stringent laws—those that require interlocks for all offenders, including first offenders, over 500 additional lives could be saved each year. In comparison to the 16 percent of impaired drivers—including first offenders—who would be kept off U.S roads if the strictest laws were enacted, only 3 percent of impaired drivers would be kept off the road if interlocks were mandated for repeat offenders only, and only 8 percent if repeat offenders and very high blood-alcohol content impaired drivers were mandated to use the devices.

All states have laws either requiring interlocks for certain offenders or allowing courts to order interlocks at their discretion, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In about thirty states and the District of Columbia and four California counties, all first-time offenders must install interlocks to resume driving. Most states have interlock requirements for repeat offenders. See Additional Resources and chart, State Laws Curbing Alcohol-Impaired Driving, for state-specific information on these and other laws.

Historic perspective

Awareness of the problems associated with alcohol-impaired driving increased dramatically in the 1990s in response to the rise of citizen activist groups, notably Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), and advertising campaigns and publicity efforts by organizations such as the Insurance Information Institute. Existing laws were strengthened, new laws were passed and task forces were created in several states. In addition, there was a noticeable change in attitudes toward drinking and driving.

Federal Legislation: In 1984 Congress enacted legislation that required highway construction funds to be withheld from states that did not adopt 21 as the legal drinking age for alcoholic beverages. This was the first time that federal legislation used financial incentives to persuade states to enact alcohol-impaired driving laws. The Omnibus Drug Initiative Act of 1988 (also called the Drunk Driving Prevention Act), helped to increase the adoption of the administrative license revocation law (ALR), which allows a driver's license to be seized when his or her BAC (blood alcohol concentration) is over the level that defines driving while intoxicated or when the driver refuses to take a BAC test. It has been shown to be one of the most effective deterrents to impaired driving. Other laws enacted include those that prohibit open alcoholic beverage containers in the passenger compartments of motor vehicles, make BAC tests mandatory for drivers involved in serious or fatal accidents, prevent drivers under 21 from obtaining alcohol and provide for vehicle registration cancellation when drivers have had their licenses suspended or revoked due to alcohol-related offenses.

The 1991 Surface Transportation Efficiency Act mandated that states had to pass four out of five laws that were recognized as having the greatest effect on impaired driving: ALR laws; lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.08 percent; using sobriety checkpoints, which remove impaired drivers from the road immediately and remind other drivers that random checks could occur at any time; establishing effective systems for preventing drivers under 21 from obtaining alcohol; and providing education programs for convicted alcohol-impaired drivers, funded by the fines assessed against those drivers. Enacting other laws brought additional funds. In 1995 the National Highway Bill further encouraged states to enact the 0.02 BAC level for drivers under 21 by holding back a portion of federal highway funds.

By the late 1990s the campaign against impaired driving focused on lowering the national limit for alcohol-impaired driving from 0.10 to 0.08 percent BAC. The 2000 Transportation Appropriations Act mandated that states that did not enact the 0.08 percent BAC standard would forfeit highway construction funds. By 2004 all states and the District of Columbia had enacted the 0.08 percent BAC standard.

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005 included funding incentives for states that pass laws that target three types of impaired drivers: repeat offenders, drivers with BACs over 0.15 percent (“higher-risk drunk drivers”) and drivers whose licenses were previously revoked for impaired driving. It also withholds a certain percentage of funding from states that do not have an open container law (one that prohibits at least the driver of a car from having an open container of alcohol in the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle). Among the more serious penalties included for convicted higher-risk impaired drivers are license revocation; vehicle impoundment; and use of ignition interlocks.

MAP-21, enacted in 2012, contained a formula where states could be classified into three groups using average impaired driving fatality rates. States having the worst rates must assess their impaired driving programs and convene a task force to develop prevention plans before grant funds are disbursed, among other requirements. MAP-21 also allows states to receive separate grants for adopting and enforcing mandatory interlock laws for all drivers convicted of impaired driving. It also required that states that did not have open container or minimum penalties for repeat offenders have some state highway funds withheld.

Legal climate: Alcohol-impaired driving laws have been tested frequently in court. In 1990, for example, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that drivers accused of impaired driving do not have the right to a jury trial. Utah is the only other state to deny jury trials in these cases. The constitutionality of roadblocks to check driver sobriety was contested in state courts in the 1980s, and in 1990 the issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Michigan vs. Sitz (No.88-1897) that sobriety checkpoints are a valid tool for detecting and apprehending intoxicated drivers and do not violate the Fourth Amendment that prohibits illegal search and seizure. (It was later remanded to the state court, which ruled it unconstitutional in Michigan). Despite the decision, roadblocks are still opposed in some state courts. and about 10 states prohibit the use of sobriety checkpoints, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Another important case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 was Pennsylvania vs. Muniz (No.89-213), in which the court ruled that videotaped evidence of impaired physical performance by an impaired driver is admissible.

In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Missouri vs. McNeely that police officers must attempt to get a warrant before forcing impaired driving suspects to submit to a blood test. Despite the fact that blood alcohol levels will become lower over time, the court said that the dissipation of alcohol does not amount to an automatic exception to the ruling. If police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant within the amount of time that would not affect a blood test, they must do so.

Liability

Commercial servers: Most states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books or case law (law that comes about through a court ruling rather than an act of the legislature) that hold commercial servers of alcohol liable for the harm caused by their intoxicated patrons.

Social hosts: Many states have enacted laws or have case law that permit social hosts who serve liquor to people who subsequently are involved in crashes to be held liable for any injury or death. These laws may have limited application, for example, many laws specify that the drinker must be obviously intoxicated. In some cases, the laws only pertain to serving alcohol to minors. Homeowners insurance usually provides some liquor liability coverage, but limits are typically only $100,000 to $300,000.

Charts and graphs

Total Traffic And Alcohol-Impaired Crash Fatalities, 1985-2016

    Alcohol-impaired crash fatalities (1)
Year Total traffic fatalities Number As a percent of
all crash deaths
1985 43,825 18,125 41%
1990 44,599 17,705 40
1995 41,817 13,478 32
2000 41,945 13,324 32
2005 43,510 13,582 31
2006 42,708 13,491 32
2007 41,259 13,041 32
2008 37,423 11,711 31
2009 33,883 10,759 32
2010 32,999 10,136 31
2011 32,479 9,865 30
2012 33,782 10,336 31
2013 32,894 10,110 31
2014 32,744 9,943 30
2015 35,485 10,320 30
2016 37,461 10,497 28

(1) Alcohol-impaired driving crashes are crashes that involve at least one driver or a motorcycle operator with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or above, the legal definition of alcohol-impaired driving.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

View Archived Tables

Percent Of Alcohol-Impaired Drivers Involved In Fatal Crashes By Age, 2007 And 2016 (1)

Age 2007 2016 Point change
16 to 20 18% 15% -3 pts.
21 to 24 34 26 -8
25 to 34 29 27 -2
35 to 44 25 22 -3
45 to 54 20 19 -1
55 to 64 12 14 2
65 to 74 7 9 2
Over 74 4 5 1

(1) Alcohol-impaired driving crashes are crashes that involve at least one driver or a motorcycle operator with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or above, the legal definition of alcohol-impaired driving.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

View Archived Tables

Persons Killed In Total And Alcohol-Impaired Crashes By Person Type, 2016

    Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities (1)
Person type Total killed Number Percent oftotal killed
Vehicle occupants      
     Driver 18,610 6,067 33%
     Passenger 6,407 1,880 29
     Unknown occupant 79 2 2
     Total 25,096 7,949 32%
Motorcyclists 5,286 1,600 30%
Nonoccupants      
     Pedestrian 5,987 807 13
     Pedalcyclist 840 91 11
     Other/unknown 252 50 20
     Total 7,079 948 13%
Total 37,461 10,497 28%

(1) Alcohol-impaired driving crashes are crashes that involve at least one driver or a motorcycle operator with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 grams per deciliter or greater, the legal definition of alcohol-impaired driving.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

View Archived Tables

State Laws Curbing Alcohol-Impaired Driving

(As of October 2018)

  Interlocks (1) required    
    To drive during post-conviction license suspension To reinstate license after conviction    
State To drive during ALS (2)
(first offense)
First offender Repeat offender First offender Repeat offender ALS (2) mandatory
90-day license suspension (3)
Open container law (4)
Alabama (5) X X   X X X
Alaska X X X X  
Arizona     X  X X X
Arkansas X X X     X X
California   X (6) X X (6) X (6) X X
Colorado X X   X X X
Connecticut (5) (5) (5) X X X  
Delaware (5) X X X X X  
D.C.   X X       X
Florida   * X * X X X
Georgia     X   X X X
Hawaii X X X X X X X
Idaho   * (5) X** X X X
Illinois X   X   X X X
Indiana           X X
Iowa X X X   X X X
Kansas (5) (5) X X X   X
Kentucky (7) * X * X   X
Louisiana   X X     X  
Maine     X     X X
Maryland   X X X X X X
Massachusetts (5)   X   X X X
Michigan (7) * X   X   X
Minnesota * * X     X X
Mississippi X X     X  
Missouri       X X  
Montana (7)           X
Nebraska X X X X X X
Nevada X X X X X X X
New Hampshire (5) X (5)   X X X
New Jersey (7) (5) (5) * X   X
New Mexico X X X X X X X
New York (7) X X X X   X
North Carolina   * (5) * X   X
North Dakota           X X
Ohio     X     X X
Oklahoma X X X   X X X
Oregon   X X X X X X
Pennsylvania (7) * X * X   X
Rhode Island (7) X X   X   X
South Carolina (7) * (5) * X   X
South Dakota (7)           X
Tennessee (7) X X   X X X
Texas   X X   X X X
Utah   (5) (5) X X X X
Vermont X X X     X X
Virginia (5) X X   X   X
Washington X X X X X X X
West Virginia X X X   X X X
Wisconsin           X X
Wyoming     X * X X  

(1) Ignition interlock devices analyze a driver's breath for alcohol and disable the ignition if a driver has been drinking. States identified mandate the devices on offenders' vehicles.
(2) Administrative license suspension, on-the-spot drivers license suspension or revocation if blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is over the legal limit or the driver refuses to take a BAC test.
(3) Mandatory penalty for violation of the implied consent law, which means that drivers who refuse to take a breath alcohol test when stopped or are arrested for alcohol-impaired driving or if BAC is over the legal limit will have their license revoked or suspended.
(4) Prohibits unsealed alcohol containers and alcohol consumption in motor vehicle passenger compartments for all occupants. Counts only laws meeting federal requirements.
(5) No option for driving during suspension.
(6) In four counties.
(7) State has no administrative license suspension for first test failure.

* State does not require interlocks except under certain conditions; see IIHS website.
** Effective January 1, 2019.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; Governors Highway Safety Administration.

View Archived Tables

Statutes Or Court Cases Holding Alcoholic Beverage Servers Liable

(As of October 2018)

  Commercial servers Social hosts   Commercial servers Social hosts
State Statute (1) Court (2) Statute (3) Court State Statute (1) Court (2) Statute (3) Court
Alabama X   X X Montana X X X  
Alaska X   X   Nebraska     X  
Arizona X X X X Nevada     X (4)  
Arkansas X X     New Hampshire X   X X
California X   X   New Jersey X   X X
Colorado X X X   New Mexico X   X X
Connecticut X X   X (4, 5) New York X   X  
Delaware         North Carolina X X X X (4)
D.C.   X (4)     North Dakota X   X  
Florida X   X X Ohio X X X X (4)
Georgia X   X   Oklahoma X X    
Hawaii   X X   Oregon X   X  
Idaho X X X   Pennsylvania X X   X (4)
Illinois X   X X Rhode Island X      
Indiana X X X X South Carolina X X X X (4)
Iowa X X X X (4) South Dakota        
Kansas         Tennessee X      
Kentucky X X   X (4) Texas X X X X
Louisiana X X X X Utah X   X X
Maine X   X   Vermont X   X X
Maryland         Virginia        
Massachusetts X X X X Washington X X X X (4)
Michigan X   X X (4) West Virginia X X (4)    
Minnesota X   X X Wisconsin X X X X
Mississippi X X X X Wyoming X   X X (4)
Missouri X                

(1) Indicates some form of liability is permitted by statute.
(2) States where common-law liability has not been specifically overruled by statute or where common-law actions are specifically recognized in addition to statutory liability.
(3) Indicates that language is capable of being read broadly enough to include noncommercial servers.
(4) For guests under the age of 21.
(5) Only if host either purveyed or supplied alcohol.

Source: Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

 

Additional resources

"Traffic Safety Facts, Alcohol," U.S. Department of Transportation, The National Center for Statistics and Analysis, NHTSA, annual issues.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

The Governors Highway Safety Administration

 

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