Impaired Driving: Laws, Penalties and Consequences
The Effectiveness of Drunk Driving Regulations

Drunk Driving Regulations: How Effective Are They?

Updated Nov. 29, 2019

Alcohol restriction and regulation has proven an extremely effective weapon against drunk driving in the United States. In 1982 when the Presidential Commission Against Drunk Driving (PCDD) was established, alcohol-impaired driving was considered a national epidemic. That year alone, drunk driving claimed 21,113 lives, accounting for almost 50% of all traffic-related deaths.

The PCDD put together 39 “recommendations” to comprehensively tackle the drunk driving problem, which included harsher penalties for convicted drunk drivers, public anti-drunk driving campaigns and youth awareness programs. Most notably among the 39 recommendations was the proposal to tackle underage drunk driving, by raising of the minimum legal drinking age. In 1984, president Reagan signed the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act, establishing the new minimum legal drinking age as 21 years old. By 1987, all 50 states had adopted this new limit.

In 1998, President Clinton publicly proposed a new national BAC limit of 0.08%at or above which it would be illegal to operate a motor vehicle. Over the next few years, the federal government applied pressure to state governments, encouraging them to adopt the 0.08% limit. By 2004, it was illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08% or higher in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Like the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act, this was a significant win in the fight against drunk driving.

Fewer drunk driving deaths

The population of the United States increases every year, along with the number of licensed drivers using our roads. It follows that the number of drunk driving incidents and fatalities would also increase year by year, and until 1982, that was generally the case. Since that time and with each major milestone in drunk driving reform, we have seen a considerable drop in national drunk driving deaths.

Between 1982 and 2016, drunk driving fatalities more than halved despite the population of the United States increasing by almost 100 million people. Check out these annual figures:

  • In 1982 there were 21,113 drunk driving fatalities.
  • In 1991 there were 15,827 drunk driving fatalities.
  • In 2007 there were 13,041 drunk driving fatalities.
  • In 2016 there were 10,497 drunk driving fatalities.

Since 1991, it is estimated that around 90,000 lives have been saved as a result of stricter drunk driving laws and alcohol regulation policies.

Tough alcohol laws save lives

The correlation between the implementation of tougher alcohol laws and the decline in national drunk driving deaths is not a coincidence. For evidence that tougher laws save lives, we need only look to the relationship between anti-drunk driving measures and the number of drunk driving deaths in individual states. Despite the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) and the BAC limit for drivers being nationally enforced laws, there is still a great deal of variance between individual states in drunk driving fatality rates.

In 2017, the national average number of drunk driving deaths per 100,000 people was 3.4. From state to state, the death rate varied from as low as 1.5 (New York) to as high as 7.6 (Wyoming). Why such a significant difference?

One study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine sought to answer this question. Researchers assessed the efficacy of 29 alcohol control policies around the country and compared their results with the number of drunk-driving deaths in each state. The aim was to ascertain whether states with the strictest and most comprehensive alcohol control measures also had the lowest death rates, and if so, which measures could be identified as the most effective. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team found that in states with strict regulations, the likelihood of alcohol-related traffic deaths occurring was lower.

The policies that were analyzed in this ground-breaking study were not just limited to drunk-driving laws and penalties. Researchers also assessed wider alcohol control measures that were not directly related to driving. The policies included:

  • False ID laws.
  • Blood alcohol concentrations laws.
  • The laws and penalties relating to supplying minors with alcohol.
  • Hours of sale restrictions for alcohol.
  • Open container laws.
  • The use of sobriety check points.
  • Tax on alcoholic beverages.
  • Alcohol awareness programs and campaigns.
  • Administrative license revocation for DUI.
  • The presence and efficiency of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) boards.
  • Alcohol home delivery policies.

Every state was then given a score between 1 and 5 based on the efficacy of each of these measures, with 5 representing the highest efficacy. Thus, the states with the highest total scores were typically those in which:

  1. Alcohol is hardest to obtain.
  2. Breaking alcohol laws carries the strictest penalties.
  3. Alcohol awareness campaigns are widespread and well-funded.

The results of this study show that states with the strictest alcohol policy environments generally had the lowest drunk driving death rates. There can be no question that tough alcohol laws save lives.

The most effective anti-DUI measures

Data from the above-mentioned study indicates that policies which reduce alcohol consumption and binge drinking are just as important as policies which refer specifically to drunk driving. Reducing general alcohol abuse seems to be an effective tactic in cutting back on incidences of alcohol-impaired driving. This is likely because, once intoxicated, a person is incredibly susceptible to making stupid and dangerous choices, like getting behind the wheel.

The prevalence of sobriety check points (roadblocks where drivers are randomly tested for alcohol intoxication) had a strong connection with the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. This same connection was discovered in a separate study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which concluded that sobriety check points can reduce the prevalence of drunk driving collisions by around 9%. It seems that increasing the risk of legal repercussions is also an effective deterrent.

Continuing the progress

For the past four or five years, the number of people killed by drunk driving crashes in the United States has hovered around the 10,000 mark. This means that around 30% of all traffic deaths are still alcohol-related and that state governments still have work to do in the fight against drunk driving. Ultimately, all the laws, restrictions and penalties in the world mean nothing unless individual drivers are committed to behaving responsibly. That means you! Alcohol is dangerous, can lead you to make terrible decisions and is illegal if you’re under 21. The only way to stay safe, is to steer clear.

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