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An Analysis of Fatal Alcohol-Related Crashes in the United States

September 20, 2021Car Accidents

Drunk driving in the United States has long been identified as dangerous, responsible for over 10,000 traffic deaths every year.

At Gerber Injury Law, we recognize this serious issue and worked with 1Point21 Interactive to analyze all alcohol-related fatal crashes in the United States from 2000-2019. During our study period, there were a total of 360,585 alcohol-related fatal crashes, which included both drivers who were buzzed or drunk. Our goal was to examine drunk driving trends in the U.S. geographically and historically, within this 19-year time frame. We also wanted to compare fatal crashes involving drunk driving versus buzzed driving.

As it turns out, buzzed driving is equally as dangerous as drunk driving, and in some cases, significantly more dangerous to road users. 184,004 crashes involved a buzzed driver, and 194,571 crashes involved a drunk driver; some involved both a drunk and buzzed driver.

Interactive Map: Alcohol-Involved Fatal Crashes from 2000-2019

For this study, our definition for a drunk driver was anyone with an actual or estimated blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level above the legal limit of 0.08. Our definition for a buzzed driver was anyone with a BAC level between 0.01 and 0.08.

Drunk Driving Crashes Over Time

During our study period, drunk driving crashes where at least one driver had a BAC over 0.08 peaked in 2005 with 15,985 fatalities.  In 2019, while the data does show that drunk driving deaths are decreasing, there were still nearly 12,000 deaths attributed to drunk drivers.

Where Do Drunk Driving Crashes Occur?

Drunk driving-related fatal crashes are not spread evenly across the U.S. Northern plains states have the highest rates. In some of the counties, more than half of all fatal crashes involved a drunk driver.

In this analysis, we studied the number of fatal crashes that occurred in counties with a population of over 25,000. By this metric, Wyoming’s Fremont County had the most drunk driving fatal crashes and Idaho’s Madison County had the least during the 19-year time frame. In Fremont County, nearly half – 47 percent of crashes – of the 250 fatal crashes involved a drunk driver. In Madison County, only six percent of the 53 crashes involved drunk driving.

Top 25 Worst Counties and Percentages for Drunk Driving Fatal Crashes (Population > 25k):

Rank County State Fatal Drunk Driving Crashes Total Fatal Crashes Percentage of Drunk Driving Fatal Crashes
1 Fremont Wyoming 118 250 47%
2 Wakulla Florida 49 105 47%
3 Marinette Wisconsin 96 206 47%
4 Okanogan Washington 85 185 46%
5 Abbeville South Carolina 39 85 46%
6 Oconto Wisconsin 88 193 46%
7 Kent Rhode Island 104 230 45%
8 Cascade Montana 78 173 45%
9 Monroe Illinois 41 91 45%
10 Lake Montana 82 182 45%
11 Charlottesville Virginia 9 20 45%
12 Washington Rhode Island 97 216 45%
13 Trempealeau Wisconsin 39 88 44%
14 Clinton Illinois 58 131 44%
15 Dickinson Michigan 19 43 44%
16 Bristol Rhode Island 15 34 44%
17 Rio Arriba New Mexico 115 262 44%
18 Becker Minnesota 39 89 44%
19 Taos New Mexico 74 169 44%
20 Lexington South Carolina 373 858 43%
21 Douglas Wisconsin 42 97 43%
22 Houghton Michigan 31 72 43%
23 Camden Missouri 89 207 43%
24 Galveston Texas 285 665 43%
25 Cameron Texas 284 664 43%

Unsurprisingly, Utah, with its high population of Mormons, has a very low rate of drunk driving fatal crashes. Utah also holds one of the toughest drunk driving standards in the nation. In 2018, it was the first state to lower the legal limit from 0.08 to 0.05 – just as it was the first state to change the legal limit from 0.10 to 0.08 in 1983.

In general, states with stricter DUI laws tend to have fewer drunk driving fatal crashes. Arizona, Georgia, and Alaska, with higher penalties, had 26.9 percent, 22.6 percent, and 31.8 percent of drunk driving fatal crashes, respectively.

Top 25 Safest Counties and Percentages for Drunk Driving Fatal Crashes (Population > 25k):

Rank County State Fatal Drunk Driving Crashes Total Fatal Crashes Percentage of Drunk Driving Fatal Crashes
1 Madison Idaho 3 53 6%
2 Box Elder Utah 19 192 10%
3 Iron Utah 14 130 11%
4 Jackson Indiana 18 166 11%
5 Utah Utah 60 531 11%
6 Washington Utah 31 272 11%
7 Weber Utah 43 352 12%
8 Sanpete Utah 9 72 13%
9 Cache Utah 21 161 13%
10 Dougherty Georgia 29 221 13%
11 Van Wert Ohio 10 76 13%
12 Davis Utah 34 258 13%
13 Henry Indiana 21 159 13%
14 Chattooga Georgia 14 106 13%
15 Jasper Iowa 17 125 14%
16 Fayette Georgia 22 157 14%
17 Hardin Kentucky 46 328 14%
18 Alexander North Carolina 16 113 14%
19 Oconee Georgia 14 98 14%
20 Gibson Indiana 21 146 14%
21 New York New York 140 972 14%
22 Wapello Iowa 10 69 14%
23 Custer Oklahoma 18 123 15%
24 Muhlenberg Kentucky 21 143 15%
25 Kandiyohi Minnesota 15 102 15%

 

Who Is Drunk Driving?

Compared to the rest of the population, drunk drivers in fatal crashes are disproportionately likely to be young men, while older women are the least likely. Male drivers ages 20-24 are more than four times likely to be drunk drivers in fatal crashes than women ages 65 and over.

How Drunk Are Drivers in Fatal Crashes?

In this data, we are only measuring drivers that have a BAC above 0.08. Based on that measure, people in the United States drive drunk at a national average of 0.173 – more than twice the legal limit. At this blood-alcohol concentration level, blackouts can commence and most cognitive abilities – such as decision-making, judgment, attention, and impulse control – are significantly impaired.

As previously mentioned, drunk driving fatal crashes occur at higher rates – but also at higher BAC averages – in the northern plains states. Drunk drivers in North Dakota had one of the highest average BACs at 0.195 – 2.4 times the legal limit. North Dakota also happens to be one of the more lenient states on drunk drivers.

For more context: To reach a BAC of 0.20, a man who weighed 160 pounds would need to have roughly seven drinks in an hour. For a woman who weighs 140 pounds, it would take four to five drinks in an hour.

Interestingly, Wyoming and Wisconsin have the highest average BACs in the nation and also, the counties with the highest rates of drunk driving fatal crashes.

Top Ten States With the Highest Average BACs:

  1. North Dakota – 0.195
  2. Wyoming – 0.193
  3. South Dakota – 0.192
  4. Idaho – 0.188
  5. Wisconsin – 0.187
  6. Minnesota – 0.186
  7. Montana – 0. 185
  8. Ohio – 0.185
  9. Oklahoma – 0.184
  10. Alaska – 0.183

New York had the lowest average BAC among drunk drivers, but it is still quite high – 0.16, or twice the legal limit. In this case, a man who weighed 160 pounds would need to drink six drinks in an hour. For a woman who weighs 140 pounds, it would take just a little over two drinks in an hour to reach this amount. Arizona and Georgia – states with stricter DUI laws – also have lower average BACs at 0.167.

Top Ten States With the Lowest Average BACs:

  1. New York – 0.156
  2. Mississippi – 0.157
  3. Texas – 0.162
  4. Massachusetts – 0.162
  5. Maryland – 0.165
  6. Arizona – 0.167
  7. Georgia – 0.167
  8. Alabama – 0.168
  9. Louisiana – 0.168
  10. Tennessee – 0.168

Buzzed Driving

With so much data available on the BAC, there is a misconception that driving buzzed doesn’t affect our driving ability. The reality is that one person dies every 52 minutes as a result of another person driving while buzzed. For this analysis, we defined buzzed drivers as “one or more drivers involved in crashes with a BAC of above 0.01 but under 0.08.” Driving buzzed may not be illegal, but it is just as dangerous as driving drunk. From 2000-2019, 202,976 people lost their lives to buzzed driving – 17,418 of them children. Shockingly, buzzed drivers killed nearly the same number of people as drunk drivers, and nearly twice as many children during this time period.

Where Is Buzzed Driving More Common Than Drunk Driving?

The map shows that buzzed driving fatal crashes are more common in the following states: New York, Texas, Arizona, and Utah, to name a few, and much less common in Montana and Maine. In Texas, fatal crashes involving buzzed drivers occurred more often than fatal crashes involving drunk drivers (28,282 crashes and 21,771 crashes, respectively).

New York had the highest ratio of buzzed driving fatal crashes to drunk driving fatal crashes. Two New York counties – New York and Kings – had nearly three times as many fatal crashes that involved buzzed driving than drunk driving. In Utah’s Box Elder, there were more than twice as many buzzed driving fatal crashes than drunk driving fatal crashes.

Top 25 Counties with the highest ratio of buzzed fatal crashes to drunk fatal crashes (Population > 25k):

  1. New York, New York3.05 times more buzzed crashes than drunk crashes 
  2. Madison, Idaho – 3.00
  3. Dougherty, Georgia – 2.97
  4. Kings, New York – 2.87
  5. Jasper, Iowa – 2.65
  6. Wapello, Iowa – 2.50
  7. Bronx, New York – 2.48
  8. Iron, Utah – 2.36
  9. Nassau, New York – 2.34
  10. Kleberg, Texas – 2.26
  11. Queens, New York – 2.26
  12. Adams, Indiana – 2.21
  13. Box Elder, Utah – 2.21
  14. Miami-Dade, Florida – 2.21
  15. Essex, New Jersey – 2.20
  16. Van Wert, Ohio – 2.20
  17. Floyd, Georgia – 2.18
  18. Marion, Mississippi – 2.17
  19. Montgomery, New York – 2.16
  20. Hudson, New Jersey – 2.12
  21. Marlboro, South Carolina – 2.11
  22. Fayette, Georgia – 2.09
  23. Madison, New York – 2.04
  24. New York, Tompkins – 2.03
  25. Harrisonburg, Virginia – 2.00
Rank County State Drunk Fatal Crashes Buzzed Fatal Crashes Ratio
1 New York New York 140 427 3.05 more buzzed crashes than drunk crashes
2 Madison Idaho 3 9 3
3 Dougherty Georgia 29 86 2.97
4 Kings New York 270 775 2.87
5 Jasper Iowa 17 45 2.65
6 Wapello Iowa 10 25 2.5
7 Bronx New York 164 407 2.48
8 Iron Utah 14 33 2.36
9 Nassau New York 326 764 2.34
10 Kleberg Texas 19 43 2.26
11 Queens New York 318 719 2.26
12 Adams Indiana 14 31 2.21
13 Box Elder Utah 19 42 2.21
14 Miami-Dade Florida 985 2175 2.21
15 Essex New Jersey 186 410 2.2
16 Van Wert Ohio 10 22 2.2
17 Floyd Georgia 49 107 2.18
18 Marion Mississippi 30 65 2.17
19 Montgomery New York 19 41 2.16
20 Hudson New Jersey 95 201 2.12
21 Marlboro South Carolina 35 74 2.11
22 Fayette Georgia 22 46 2.09
23 Madison New York 27 55 2.04
24 Tompkins New York 36 73 2.03
25 Harrisonburg Virginia 5 10 2

 

Who Drives Buzzed?

For the most part, the same types of people who drive drunk are also driving buzzed. Buzzed drivers in fatal crashes are most likely to be men between the ages of 15-50.

However, the data shows that buzzed drinking doesn’t decline with age the way drunk driving tends to. Men ages 20-29 are 10 times more likely to be drunk in fatal crashes than men who are ages 80 and over. In contrast, men ages 80 and over are just as likely to drive buzzed as men in the 20-29 range.

A similar trend is seen for women – though they drive drunk at much lower rates than men. As mentioned earlier, older female drivers are the least likely to be drunk when in a fatal crash, but they have fewer reservations about driving buzzed. Women under 20 and between 60-69 were just as likely to be buzzed. In fact, 17 percent of drivers in fatal crashes in these demographics had BACs between 0.01 and 0.08.

Fortunately, the overall percentage of sober driving across almost all demographics is much more than the combined percentage of driving drunk or buzzed as shown below. The exception category is male drivers ages 20-29.

Why This Study Matters: Preventing Drunk Driving

This data proves that drinking and driving are dangerous, regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed. A buzzed driver is just as dangerous on the road as a drunk driver. To keep yourself and others safer on the road, practice the following tips:

  • Don’t drink and drive under any circumstance: In 2005, the Ad Council launched a campaign called, “Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving,” sponsored by the NHTSA.  The message is simple: If you’re drinking – any amount – don’t drive. Even small portions of alcohol – such as a blood alcohol concentration of .02 – can impact a person’s ability to perform two tasks at one time and can be the tipping point with all the other distractions such as cell phone use. The false sense of invincibility created by alcohol shouldn’t be taken on the road.
  • Always plan ahead and stay safe: If you know you are going to drink, plan accordingly and prepare for the situation. Set yourself up for a safe driving option. Decide from any of the options from the get-go: call an Uber/Lyft, ask a friend for a ride, stay over at the host’s house, or have a chosen designated driver who will not drink.
  • Look out for your friends: As the 1983 “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign goes, influence your friends to drive sober or to avoid driving. If you are hosting a party, help make sure your guests are leaving with a sober driver. While we can’t control every driver on the road, we can help our loved ones make safer choices.

Methodology and Fair Use

This analysis is based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fatal crash data from the time frame of 2000-2019. We defined a driver as “drunk” if his or her blood alcohol concentration level (actual or estimated) was above the legal limit of 0.08.

There are two methods to determine if a driver was drunk:

  1. The actual BAC test of the driver
  2. The statistical method to estimate whether the driver was drunk (in the case when no BAC test was given). The statistical method the government uses returns 10 potential BAC values for a driver.

For this analysis, we used the first method – the actual BAC test – if it was available. If it was not available, we used the average of the 10 statistically determined BAC values.

If you would like to report or republish our findings, please link to this page to provide a citation for our work.