Do deaths from alcohol-involved motor vehicle crashes decrease when states enact more restrictive alcohol policies? It’s a question being asked by researchers in a new study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Tougher Alcohol Policies Mean Fewer Deaths
“Association of State Alcohol Policies with Alcohol-Related Motor Vehicle Crash Fatalities Among US Adults” examined how the strictness of state alcohol policies, or “alcohol policy environments,” impact the number of drunk-driving deaths. Ultimately, the researchers found a strong link between the two.
Alcohol policy expert Dr. Timothy Naimi and his team analyzed 15 years of crash data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. To measure the alcohol policy environment, the researchers developed the Alcohol Policy Scale (APS), which lists 29 possible alcohol policies in all 50 states.
Examples of policies incorporated into the APS include strictly enforced minimum drinking age laws, zero-tolerance for underage drinking, fake ID laws, and liability for house parties. Other policies focused on alcohol distribution, such as raising alcohol taxes, Sunday sales laws, limitations on liquor store licensing, restricting sales hours, and open container laws.
The researchers concluded that a “10–percentage point increase in the restrictiveness of the state alcohol policy environment was associated with a 10% reduced odds that a crash fatality was alcohol related.” Meaning, by increasing the strength of their alcohol policies by 10%, states could save nearly 800 lives a year, or “about 15 fewer crash fatalities annually in an averaged-sized state.”
The findings verified the researcher’s hypothesis: stronger regulations for alcohol purchases, consumption, and driving while impaired results in fewer deaths attributed to alcohol-related crashes.
The Toll of Drunk Driving
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over one million drivers were arrested for alcohol or drug-related DUIs in 2016, but that’s only 1% of the over 111 million self-reported episodes in which people admit to being intoxicated while driving. On average, drunk driving kills more than 10,000 people each year in the U.S.—nearly 29 people a day or one person every 50 minutes.
Stronger alcohol policies such as minimum drinking age laws, sobriety checkpoints, and the .08% blood-alcohol limit have led to a reduction in the number of total drunk driving deaths in recent years, but more can be done to save lives.
“It’s a drinking, not just driving, problem, and folks don’t tend to make good decisions once impaired,” Dr. Naimi told Reuters. “Our study shows that polices targeting both aspects of the equation are helpful, though we could do a lot better on both,” he added. “Having a smaller pool of impaired people available to drive is a big help in reducing impaired driving.”