Alcohol Consumption And Cars: Unsafe At Any Level
    By News Staff | January 16th 2014 10:34 AM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Even "minimally buzzed" drinkers and drivers are more often to blame for fatal car crashes than the sober drivers they collide with, reports a University of California, San Diego study of accidents in the United States . 

    UC San Diego sociologist David Phillips and colleagues examined 570,731 fatal collisions, from 1994 to 2011, using the official U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database because it is nationally comprehensive and because it reports on blood alcohol content (BAC) in increments of 0.01 percent.

    They focused on "buzzed drivers," with
    blood alcohol content
     of 0.01 to 0.07 percent, and, within this group, the "minimally buzzed", a blood alcohol content
    of 0.01 percent.

    They found that drivers with  blood alcohol content
    of 0.01 percent – well below the U.S. legal limit of 0.08 – are 46 percent more likely to be officially and solely blamed by accident investigators than are the sober drivers they collide with. They found no "threshold effect" – "no sudden transition from blameless to blamed" - at the legal limit for drunk driving. Instead, blame increases steadily and smoothly from BAC 0.01 to 0.24 percent. 

    Phillips said, police, judges and the public at large treat BAC 0.08 percent as "a sharp, definitive, meaningful boundary" - sociologists often make sweeping assertions about broad segments of the population without evidence - and do not impose severe penalties on those below the legal limit. That needs to change, Phillips said. "The law should reflect what official accident investigators are seeing."

    The researchers measured blame by looking at more than 50 driver factors coded in the FARS database, including such "unambiguous" factors as driving through a red light or driving on the wrong side of the road.

    Many of the analyses take advantage of what the authors call "a natural experiment" - two-vehicle collisions between a sober and a drinking driver. "Because the two drivers collide in exactly the same circumstances and at exactly the same time," they write, "this natural experiment automatically standardizes many potentially confounding variables," including weather and roadway conditions. 

    The findings are unequivocal, Phillips said. "We find no safe combination of drinking and driving – no point at which it is harmless to consume alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car," Phillips said. "Our data support both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's campaign that 'Buzzed driving is drunk driving' and the recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board, to reduce the legal limit to BAC 0.05 percent. In fact, our data provide support for yet greater reductions in the legal BAC."

    Phillips noted that, although federal agencies recommend reducing the legal BAC limit below 0.08 percent, there has been very little research on the dangers of driving at very low levels of BAC. "We appear to be the first researchers to have provided nationwide evidence on traffic accidents caused by minimally buzzed drivers," he said.

    More than 100 countries around the world have limits set at BAC 0.05 percent or below.

    In calling on all 50 U.S. states to follow suit, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement last spring: "Alcohol-impaired crashes are not accidents. They are crimes. They can – and should – be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."

    Published in
    Injury Prevention. Source: University of California - San Diego


    Seems to me that just because .01 makes you somewhat more dangerous, it's not necessarily self evident that legislation should be changed. It's not even evident that it would change anything. There might be a great deal of public resistance since this law would, if strictly enforced, be close to a ban on drinking in bars and restaurants. At least in most of the US with most people's car habits. Obviously in New York City it wouldn't be nearly as big a deal. I would rather people didn't drink anything and drive, but I think we should put our political efforts in places where they might make a difference.

    If a 46 percent increase in danger is important, then perhaps we should be banning a lot of vehicles which are a lot more dangerous than the safest ones. First of all, ban all the old and poorly maintained cars. Also non-commercial pickup trucks, especially the ones without ABS brakes. Also anything above a certain weight or below a certain weight. Etc. Gee, maybe we should put drivers in the back seat of the cruiser and read the phone book to them for 20 minutes to see if they are tired.

    Just because there is no magic threshold, doesn't mean that an arbitrary legislative limit doesn't make sense. After all, everyone has a tiny bit of alcohol in their system.

    Seems to me that the reduction in drunk driving has been because of social pressure, and maybe some stepped up enforcement. Which doesn't necessarily require changing the law. We should also remember that enforcement has some negative effects. I was on a jury in a DWI case. I became convinced for a while (11 other unanimous jurors can do that to you, or at least could to me). Later, I decided that the case was lousy, and possibly the real "crime" was driving while black in a very white town. So there's a price!

    Anyway, I find the science interesting and plausible, but I don't agree that more legislation is the answer to what's left of the drunk driving problem, big as it still is.

    BTW, I am now struggling with the Captcha to post this. I've read recently that there is software which passes this Turing test far more often than I do!

    Sure, and keep in mind studies tend to be rather narrow. I bet if we use cold medication, we'd get really high results on reaction tests.

    But these were not even reaction tests. These were reports by insurance adjusters, who found more often that someone who had any alcohol was to blame.  How often is anyone asked after an accident 'Do you have a cold?' the way they are about alcohol?

    P.S I hate captcha too. If Google can't make a good one, no one can. But without captcha, we are overrun by spam in an hour. That's why so many sites no longer allow anonymous commenting at all.