Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Drunk Driving Statistics - Fact Or Fiction?

Every 30 minutes, another person is killed by a drunk driver - so says one set of dramatic statistics often cited by anti-alcohol activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). No doubt such a statistic should and does make an impact on anyone who hears it. Drunk driving is not a laughing matter, and it is most definitely a serious issue - however, the situation may not be nearly as grim as some make it out to be.

There's a saying that 90% of all statistics can be made to say anything, 50% of the time. While this statement is obviously an exaggeration, it contains a grain of truth - statistics are not nearly as scientifically sound as many people would like to believe. In many cases, statistics become skewed (whether intentionally or unintentionally) and communicate a message inconsistent with the reality they are meant to depict. Could something like this happen in DWI-related research?

Alcohol-Related Incidents

If you believe the popular media, about 50% of all traffic fatalities are caused by the actions of people driving drunk. If you choose to find the truth yourself, you'll probably come up with a percentage closer to 10%, according to the National Motorists Association - a significant drop, to say the least.

Why is the popularized figure so far off? One cause is an unfortunate confusion involving the term "alcohol-related incident." In most cases, any traffic fatality in which someone involved has a measurable amount of alcohol in their system qualifies as an "alcohol-related incident."

This applies even if the person with alcohol in their system was not physically or mentally impaired by alcohol in anyway, if he or she was not the cause of the accident, or even if he or she was an innocent pedestrian who was not behind the wheel at all. That is to say, if a sober driver is driving recklessly and kills a non-impaired pedestrian with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .01 (the legal limit is .08, for comparison), the incident will be classified as alcohol-related and spread over the media by special interest groups and politicians.

Politicization of the Issue

Unfortunately, efforts to actually deter drunk driving have been hindered by the sensationalist approach of the popular media, the single-minded crusade of biased interest groups, and the general politicization of the topic. Because dire DWI statistics make good news, promote interest groups' narrow-minded agendas, and make for dramatic political speeches, they are often preferred in place of the truth.

Although the original goal of organizations like MADD (that is, the goal of preventing drunk driving) is a noble one, this goal has been perverted, becoming more about highly visible and politically attractive actions (sobriety roadblocks and checkpoints, for example) than about solutions which have been scientifically proven to work.

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Driving While Intoxicated

Driving while intoxicated is the act of operating and/or driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs to the degree that mental and motor skills are impaired. It is illegal in all jurisdictions within the U.S. The specific criminal offense is usually called driving under the influence (of alcohol and/or other drugs, DUI), and in some states driving while intoxicated (DWI), operating while impaired (OWI), or operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI). Such laws may also apply to boating or piloting aircraft.

In the United States the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 17,941 people died in 2006 in "alcohol-related" collisions, representing 40 percent of total traffic deaths in the US. Over 500,000 people were injured in alcohol-related accidents in the US in 2003. NHTSA defines fatal collisions as "alcohol-related" if they believe the driver, a passenger, or an occupant of the vehicle (such as a pedestrian or pedalcyclist) had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.01 or greater. NHTSA defines nonfatal collisions as "alcohol-related" if the accident report indicates evidence of alcohol present. NHTSA specifically notes that "alcohol-related" does not necessarily mean a driver or nonoccupant was tested for alcohol and that the term does not indicate a collision or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol. On average, about 60 percent of the BAC values are missing or unknown. To analyze what they believe is the complete data, statisticians simulate BAC information. Drivers with a BAC of 0.10 are 6 to 12 times more likely to get into a fatal crash or injury then drivers with no alcohol.