Alcohol is a major factor in traffic accidents. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there was an alcohol-impaired traffic fatality every 51 minutes in 2015.
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 drunk driving. According to NHTSA 10,265 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes in 2015, up 3.2 percent from 9,943 in 2014. In 2015 alcohol-impaired crash fatalities accounted for 29 percent of all crash fatalities.
The definition of drunk driving had been consistent throughout the United States until March 2017. All states and the District of Columbia defined 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. In March 2017, the governor of Utah signed 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.
Anti-drunk-driving campaigns 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 those least responsive to arguments against drunk driving, according to NHTSA.
To make sellers and servers of liquor more careful about to whom and how they serve drinks, 42 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws or have case law holding commercial liquor servers legally liable for the damage, injuries and deaths a drunk driver causes. Thirty-nine 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. (See chart below and Background.)
(As of September 2016)
Awareness of the problems associated with drunk driving increased dramatically in the 1990s in response to the rise of citizen activist groups, notably Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), and to advertising campaigns and publicity efforts by organizations such as the Insurance Information Institute. Existing laws were strengthened, new laws were passed and drunk driving 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, the first time federal legislation used financial incentives to persuade states to enact drunk 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 drunk 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 drunk driving: ALR laws; lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.08 percent; using sobriety checkpoints, which remove drunk 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 drunk 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 drunk driving focused on lowering the national limit for drunk driving from 0.10 to 0.08 percent BAC. A Transportation Appropriations Act mandated in 2000 that states that did not enact the 0.08 percent BAC standard would forfeit highway construction funds. A similar law was enacted in 2001. States that failed to comply by October 2003 lost 2 percent of certain federal highway funds. By July 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 drunk drivers: repeat offenders, drivers with BACs over 0.15 percent (“higher-risk drunk drivers”) and drunk drivers whose licenses were previously revoked for drunk 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 drunk drivers are license revocation; vehicle impoundment; and use of ignition interlocks, devices that prevent a vehicle from starting if the breath of the driver contains any alcohol. (See Repeat Offenders below.)
MAP-21, which reauthorized transportation programs for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 beginning in October 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. Safety plans must be approved by the Secretary of Transportation. The states with the best rates are automatically eligible for grant funds that can be used for impaired driving programs of their choice, and states in the middle range have fewer restrictions than the high range states. MAP-21 also allows states to receive separate grants for adopting and enforcing mandatory interlock laws for all drivers convicted of drunk driving. It also requires that states that do not have open container or minimum penalties for repeat offenders have some state highway funds withheld.
Drunk driving laws have been frequently tested in court. In 1990, for example, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that accused drunk drivers do not have a right to a jury trial. Utah is the only other state to deny jury trials in drunk driving 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 prohibiting illegal search and seizure. (It was later remanded to the state court, which ruled it unconstitutional in Michigan). Despite the decision, roadblocks have continued to be opposed in some state courts. Thirty-eight states plus the District of Columbia permit 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 a drunk 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 drunken 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.
Repeat Offenders: Out of the 1.5 million arrests of impaired drivers each year, one-third are repeat offenders, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Using data for 2007, the agency said that drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (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. Authors of a report published in May 2010 by the American Journal of Public Health studied over 100 million driving records spanning the years 1973 to 2008 and found that the recidivism rate among first offenders more closely resembles that of second offenders than of nonoffenders, a finding that indicates that leniency for first offenders is not appropriate, according to the Director of Law Enforcement at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
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. Ignition interlocks are devices that measure a driver's BAC and prevent a car from starting if alcohol is detected. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as of March 2017, all states have laws either requiring interlocks for certain offenders or allowing courts to order interlocks at their discretion. In 28 states, the District of Columbia and four California counties, all alcohol-impaired driving offenders, including first-time offenders, must install interlocks to resume driving. Eleven additional states mandate interlocks for high BAC offenders—usually 0.15 or higher—and for repeat offenders. Five states mandate interlocks only for repeat offenders, and one only for high-BAC offenders and offenders convicted of a felony regardless of BAC. Four states have no mandatory interlock requirements. See chart: State Laws Curbing Drunk Drivers.
First Offenders: Research collated by the National Traffic Law Center and MADD found that first offenders are very likely to have driven drunk before their first arrest. In fact, studies found that on average, one arrest is made for every 88 instances of driving over the legal limit defining drunk driving. The research also found that first offenders’ blood alcohol concentrations were only slightly lower than those of repeat offenders, 0.16 percent compared with 0.18 percent. In one study, over 80 percent of first offenders were found to be problem drinkers or alcoholics; only 18 percent were considered social drinkers. Other studies have shown that 70 to 80 percent of DWI offenders have alcohol abuse problems.
College drinking: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related, unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes (about half among students under 21), and that an additional 599,000 students are injured. In late 2009, Rider University and the family of a student who died in 2007 of alcohol poisoning after drinking while pledging a fraternity reached a confidential settlement. Several fraternity members were also named in the lawsuit. Conditions of the settlement included compensating the student’s family and the school, banning alcohol at all fraternity and sorority events and promising to strengthen sanctions against hazing. A spokesperson for the reciprocal risk retention group that insures the school said that in such cases there is an expectation that schools monitor and enforce policies; claims arise if there is a perception that the school has not lived up to that role. An attorney involved in the case said that courts are now recognizing a special relationship between universities and students but a clear-cut determination of gross negligence and liability is hard to decide.
Liability issues: Commercial servers: Forty-two 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. Some of the laws have limitations.
Social hosts: Thirty-nine 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 are only targeted at minors.
"Traffic Safety Facts, Alcohol," U.S. Department of Transportation, The National Center for Statistics and Analysis, NHTSA, annual issues.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), http://www.madd.org.
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