The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the results of their latest National Survey of Drinking and Driving Attitudes and Behaviors, done in 2008.
That headline grabbing statistic, that one in five have driven after drinking (actually within two hours of drinking) is not about driving “drunk,” but simply after having had any amount of alcohol. That seems a little alarmist and misleading. If I have one beer with lunch and then drive, I’m included in that statistic even though at my size and appetite, it’s unlikely I’m anywhere near 0.08% BAC. It makes for a great headline, but that’s about it. It’s also the statistic featured on the home page for this survey. Here’s the abstract from the NHTSA.
One Out of Five Are Drinker-Drivers
Twenty percent of the public 16 and older had in the past year driven a motor vehicle within two hours of drinking alcohol. About two-thirds of these, or 13% of the total population 16 and older had done so in the past 30 days. The survey produced an estimate of 85.5 million past-month drinking-driving trips, up from 73.7 million trips in 2004 and reversing a declining trend in such trips since 1995. More than three-fourths (78%) of the trips were made by males.
Those who reported driving within two hours of drinking in the past year tended to be more frequent drinkers than did other drivers who drink but do not drive afterwards. More than one in four (28%) drinking drivers usually consumed alcoholic beverages 3 or more days a week, compared to 10% of drivers who drink but do not drink and drive. While few 16- to 20-year-olds reported drinking and driving, those that did averaged 5.7 drinks per sitting during the times they drink alcohol (inclusive of all drinking occasions, not just drinking and driving). For 21- to 24-year-old drinking drivers, their average alcohol intake was 4.2 drinks per sitting. The average number of drinks dropped sharply again for 25- to 34-year-old drinking drivers (3.0), then declined more slowly across ensuing age groups.
But when you look at this same statistic since 1993, when the first survey was taken, it’s been almost exactly the same, changing no more than a percentage point or two in nearly twenty years. The point is that all of the efforts to lower the standard of what it means to be drunk, the scare tactics and increased penalties have done little to change people’s behavior.
As for people driving after meeting our arbitrary definition of being drunk, that’s roughly 17.2 million people (in the last year) or about 8%. That’s more like one in twelve. And though I couldn’t find a companion chart for this stat since 1993, I’d be willing to guess it’s been similarly static.
I should say at this point — though I shouldn’t have to — that I don’t think people should get drunk and drive, so please don’t write and accuse me of that. I’m simply questioning the statistics and the effectiveness of current policy based upon them. As I’ve written before, I tend to think that all that lowering the standard of intoxication from 0.1% to 0.08% has accomplished is to criminalize more people while doing nothing to stop the true problem drinkers from driving.
To me, the real scandal is that not one organization that’s against drunk driving is actively lobbying for a mass transit system that actually works in the U.S. It seems to me that the most obvious way to curb drunk driving is provide an alternative. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t effectively stop people from drinking alcohol. It was illegal for thirteen years, and that didn’t stop anyone. And if this recent study shows us anything, it’s that, right or wrong, people still drive after drinking despite years of increasingly criminalizing that behavior. In short, what we’re doing now isn’t working. Isn’t that obvious?
Many people who want to lower the BAC even further note that in Europe it’s often 0.05% or even lower. But what they fail to point out is that in every country in Europe I’ve ever visited, there are real, viable alternatives to get around using public transportation. But we’re a car country thanks to the actions of the oil and automobile companies in the last century, when they bought up and dismantled public transportation systems. Not to mention the greatest corporate giveaway in history is the public highway system. Imagine how expensive cars would be if the automobile companies had to build the roads, too, like railroads did. So if we want to use Europe as a model, then we have to build an effective public transportation system here, too. And that would have all kinds of positive benefits beyond reducing drunk driving. So let’s get on that.
You can read the whole survey, in three parts at the NHTSA website, where you can download the pdf’s.