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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 8 | September 30, 2000 Subscribe

New survey looks at high DUI, death rates among some Hispanic groups

An Institute-funded survey may provide insight into why some Hispanic groups have more than their share of alcohol-related driving violations and deaths. The new study surveys Mexican American and Caucasian men who were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) in California.

The focus on ethnicity reflects a concern that Hispanics aren't sharing in the national trend toward less drinking and driving. In national roadside surveys, the percentage of Hispanic drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) exceeding 0.10 percent was twice as high in 1996 as in 1973. At the same time, the rates declined among both Caucasian and African American drivers (see "Alcohol-impaired driving still a big problem," March 22, 1997).

Hispanics have higher rates of DUI arrests and fatal crashes involving drivers with high BACs. But "these rates aren't uniform across all Hispanic groups," explains Susan Ferguson, the Institute's research vice president. "Alcohol-related deaths are more prevalent among Mexican Americans than among Caucasians, but that's not the case with Cuban or Puerto Rican Americans."

Mexican Americans make up the majority of the nation's fastest growing ethnic population, so improving drinking and driving rates among Mexican Americans would translate into a much wider benefit. "If we could take even half or a third out of the Hispanic DUI population, it would be a major event," says researcher Marcelline Burns of the Southern California Research Institute, which conducted the survey.

The survey queried 300 Mexican American men and 300 Caucasian men in Long Beach, California. In each group, half had been arrested for DUI and half were comparison respondents recruited locally. The questions focused on alcohol use and attitudes toward drinking, beliefs about how alcohol relates to impairment, and knowledge of DUI laws.

Mexican Americans reported heavier and more frequent drinking compared with Caucasians, a finding that's consistent with other research. Although Mexican Americans who had been arrested didn't report heavier or more frequent drinking than their counterparts in the comparison group, the arrestees were more likely to say they believe they can drive safely after drinking. They also reported more occasions when they had driven after drinking and more past DUI violations.

These findings indicate that heavy drinking, although common among some Mexican Americans, is only part of the problem. What also matters is what people know about alcohol and impairment, how they view their own ability to handle alcohol, and whether they're familiar with drinking and driving laws. In fact, knowledge of the laws was found lacking. More than half of Mexican Americans and about a third of Caucasians indicated they don't know the BAC threshold (0.08 percent) above which it's illegal to drive in California.

Misconceptions about how alcohol consumption relates to impairment also are evident. Past research has shown that people generally underestimate the number of drinks to reach the threshold above which it's illegal to drive (see "Most people clueless about link between drinking, impairment," Nov. 27, 1993). Respondents in this survey likewise tended to underestimate what it takes to exceed a 0.08 percent BAC. But some then overestimated the number of drinks it would take to become an unsafe driver. Mexican Americans estimated 8 to 10 drinks on average compared with 4 or 5 drinks estimated by Caucasians.

This suggests that Mexican Americans, more than Caucasians, don't understand what 0.08 percent means in practical terms, Burns says. "They think if they have a couple of beers they'll be at 0.08 BAC, but on the other hand they don't think they'll be impaired or drunk until they have many times that number of beers."

Without an understanding that a 0.08 percent BAC results in impairment, there's only the threat of getting caught to motivate drivers not to drink and drive. But the majority of men who already had been arrested for DUI, both Mexican American and Caucasian, said they think it's unlikely they'll be stopped by police if drinking. The expectation of enforcement was much higher among comparison respondents.

Mexican Americans often demonstrated limited English proficiency. They were younger, had fewer years of education, and earned less than their Caucasian counterparts, though most of the Mexican Americans were employed. Many didn't have driver's licenses, and half of the unlicensed drivers never had attempted to get one.

Factors like these affect people's access to information and, in turn, shape attitudes. This is where Jeannette Noltenius, executive director of the Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco Prevention, sees the greatest need: "We commend the Institute for this study highlighting the need for strong, sustainable programs to reduce drinking and driving in the Latino community. It's more evident that people's attitudes toward drinking and driving need to change. This is where long-term education programs could make a positive difference."

Ferguson adds that "communicating the crash risks and other consequences of drinking, like any other public health and safety issue, requires a good deal of cultural sensitivity. This is why the effort to reach Mexican American drinking drivers needs to come from within that community. Those who understand the culture are best equipped to take the prevention message and convey it in a relevant, appropriate way."

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