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Status Report, Vol. 38, No. 2 | February 8, 2003 Subscribe

No recent progressImpaired-driving deaths aren't declining anymore

In 1995 the Institute was reporting that "alcohol involvement in fatal crashes is on the decrease. It's declining in crashes involving all types of vehicles and in crashes involving drivers of all ages" (see "Highway death toll tops 40,000 in 1994 for the 2nd straight year," Aug. 12, 1995). In 1982 about half of all drivers killed in crashes had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of 0.08 percent or more. By 1997 this proportion had declined to 32 percent. But the progress hasn't continued. Since 1997 there has been virtually no change in the proportion of drivers with BACs of 0.08 percent or more who were killed in crashes.

Percentage of fatally injured drivers with BACs of 0.08 percent or greater, 1982-2001

BAC graph image

"No matter how you define the problem, whether you define alcohol impairment as a BAC of 0.08 or a BAC much higher, there's been a clear leveling off of progress," says Institute chief scientist Allan Williams. The proportion of fatally injured people with very high BACs (0.15 percent or higher) declined from 35 percent in 1982 to 23 percent in 1997. Since then, the proportion has remained at 22 or 23 percent.

"It's particularly interesting that the same trend is apparent in both groups, those with very high BACs and those with lower BACs," Williams says. "Often it has been assumed that the people with the higher BACS are hard-core drinkers who weren't affected by the inroads against alcohol-impaired driving during the 1980s and '90s. But they were affected. Deaths did decline among these drivers. They declined substantially, and now the decline has leveled off, just like among drivers with BACs of 0.08 to 0.14 percent."

The trend is apparent among passenger vehicle drivers, tractor-trailer drivers, and motorcyclists. In each group progress was made during the 1980s and '90s to reduce deaths involving alcohol-impaired driving, but by 1997 the inroads had stopped. MADD president Wendy Hamilton blames "public and political complacency" for the lack of progress.

Williams adds, "We do know what will reduce the problem. For example, sobriety checkpoints have been shown to be effective in numerous studies including a recent one from the Centers for Disease Control. But the countermeasures we know are effective aren't being widely used."

Alcohol-impaired driving deaths are most common among drivers 21-30 years old. In this group, half of the passenger vehicle drivers who were killed in crashes during 2001 had BACs of 0.08 percent or more. This compares with 9 percent among drivers older than 60.

Among drivers of all ages, the problem is worse among men than women. Thirty-nine percent of male drivers killed in 2001 had BACs of 0.08 or more. The comparable proportion of females was 19 percent.

More facts

Total motor vehicle fatalities aren't changing much year to year (42,116 in 2001 compared with 41,821 in 2000). The death rate per 100,000 people has been constant at 15 since 1998.

Motorcycle deaths go up again

Deaths of motorcyclists have gone up every year since a low of 2,056 in 1997. In 2001 the cyclist toll was 3,109. Deaths of older cyclists have been going up even longer, since 1993. But until 1997 the decline in deaths among younger riders was enough to offset the increase among older riders. By 1999 riders 40 and older were accounting for more motorcyclist deaths than riders 29 and younger (see Status Report special issue: motorcycle deaths, Jan. 12, 2002). Thirty-nine percent of all cyclist deaths in 2001 were riders 40 and older. This group accounted for 14 percent of rider deaths in 1990.

Motor vehicle deaths

Total number of deaths, 1975-2001

Graph 1 image

Death rates per 100,000 people, 1975-2001

Graph image 2

Motorcyclist deaths

Deaths by age of rider, 1990-2001

Graph image 3

Percent change in deaths since 1995

Graph image 4

Helmet use is one of the most important factors in fatal motorcycle crashes. An unhelmeted rider is 40 percent more likely than a helmeted one to suffer a fatal head injury. In the 20 states and the District of Columbia where all motorcyclists are required to wear helmets, the use rate approaches 100 percent. This compares with about 50 percent of riders wearing helmets in other states where the laws don't apply to all riders. Helmet use also is a factor in bicycle deaths. Eighty-two percent of bicyclists killed in 2001 weren't wearing helmets.

Child occupant, pedestrian, and bicyclist deaths

Deaths of children younger than 13
as passenger vehicle occupants, pedestrians, and bicyclists, 1975-2001

Graph image

A positive finding is that deaths of children 12 and younger are declining. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have declined fairly steadily since 1975. However, child passenger vehicle occupant deaths have been on the decline only since the mid-1990s, following the launch of a national outreach campaign to move kids to the rear seats of vehicles and ensure they ride properly restrained. Thirty-one percent of all fatally injured child passengers in 2001 were riding in front seats, down from 44 percent a decade earlier.

Williams points out that "there's still room for improvement. For example, in some states children who are too old to be covered by child restraint laws are protected by adult belt laws that apply only to people riding in front seats. So it's perfectly legal for children to ride unrestrained in rear seats. This makes no sense because the back seat is where we tell parents it's safest for their children to ride. Every restraint law should cover every child who rides in the back seat."


Deaths inched up in 2001, increasing by 2 percent to 4,882. Older people (65+ years old) are particularly hard hit. Pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people in this group are 2.5 times higher than among younger people.

Review supports DWI checkpoints

A review  of 23 studies by the Centers for Disease Control concludes that regular sobriety checkpoints can significantly reduce crashes involving alcohol.

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