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In the mid-1970s, a majority of traffic fatalities in America were due to drunk driving: about 60 percent of everyone who died from road crashes lost their life because someone behind the wheel was drinking. A massive crackdown spearheaded by the Mothers Against Drunk Driving beginning in the early 1980s, involving stiffer and stiffer penalties and lower alcohol thresholds, cut that in half. Currently about one-third of all traffic deaths are due to alcohol impairment.

But the toll is still high: drunk driving claims 10,000 lives in the U.S. each year, according to federal statistics.

A new crackdown with lower BAC limits, more sobriety checkpoints than ever before, increased taxes and penalties, strengthened regulations on booze sales, and ignition interlock laws for all offenders is part of a plan recommended in a National Academies report released this week.

“Getting to Zero Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities” is the title of the new publication, and the publisher says it offers a blueprint to solving the problem through “evidence-based” solutions.

“Despite years of progress, alcohol-impaired driving remains the deadliest and costliest danger on U.S. roads today,” the National Academies said in a fact sheet. “The causes of alcohol-impaired driving are complex and multifaceted, but these deaths are entirely preventable.”

The problem, the report states, is costly. For 2010, the total economic cost of drunk driving crashes was $121.5 billion, which includes medical costs, damages, earning losses, and legal costs.

Rural areas are also disproportionately hit by the phenomenon. Nearly half of drunk-driving deaths occur in those rural areas.

The recommendations from the nearly 500-page report are:

  • Significant increases to alcohol taxes at the federal and state levels.
  • Lowering the blood-alcohol content (BAC) threshold in all states from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. By some estimates, this would mean two glasses of wine for a 120-pound woman would make her legally unable to operate a vehicle for multiple hours.
  • “Frequent” sobriety checkpoints should be set up by states and localities.
  • Auto insurers could incentivize discounts for drivers “to stimulate the adoption of” the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS).
  • Municipalities should promote and increase alternative transportation options, especially during nighttime hours and weekends – and especially in rural areas.
  • Health systems and health insurers should push screening and prevention and treatment for binge-drinking disorders.
  • Ignition interlock should be required for anyone ever caught drunk driving.
  • Special DWI courts should be set up in each state, which include consultation with an addiction-trained clinician.

Major government expense continues to be allocated to combat drunk driving. For instance, highway safety funding for just impaired driving countermeasures and ignition interlock totaled nearly $150 million for the fiscal year ending in September, according to the Governnor's Highway Safety Association.

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