The Surprising Issue That May Be Holding Back Effective Drunk Driving Laws


It’s been well-established that alcohol and traffic fatalities often go hand-in-hand. But state and local authorities are failing to note alcohol as a contributing factor on a staggering number of death certificates for drunk driving-related traffic fatalities, according to a new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Researchers found that just three percent of death certificates for traffic fatalities between 1999 and 2009 listed alcohol as a contributing factor. However, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 21 percent of people killed in car crashes over that same period were legally drunk — seven times as much as what gets reported on death certificates.

In a press release accompanying the study, Ralph Hingson of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explained that the discrepancy is especially important considering that car accidents are the number one killer of young Americans — one reason that the National Transportation Safety Board is recommending lowering the legal blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05. “We need to have a handle on what’s contributing to the leading cause of death among young people,” Hingson said. “You want to know how big the problem is, and if we can track it. Is it going up, or going down? And what policy measures are working?”

The study authors noted that future state drunk driving and traffic safety policies would likely be rooted in local data about fatality rates, and that a skewed perception of the number of driving deaths attributable to alcohol in any given region could stifle effective reforms. “The quality and details of the information recorded on death certificates determine the accuracy of the mortality statistics and the validity of research findings based on mortality data,” wrote the researchers.

So what explains the death certificate discrepancy? The study authors posit that the length of time it takes to do a blood alcohol test after a crash may be a major reason. Receiving test results could take over a week, while death certificates are usually issued within four days of a death. There may also be a distinct lack of data in some areas since just about half of states require drivers in traffic fatalities to be tested for blood alcohol level — and just about 70 percent of those drivers are actually tested, according to the report.

“Despite the growing recognition of alcohol use as an important risk factor for public health, the reporting of alcohol involvement on death certificates does not seem to have improved much over the years,” concluded the study authors. “Federal and state governments should continue to encourage or perhaps start to require death certifiers to report alcohol involvement when it contributes to death.”