More than 4 million U.S. adults admit they drink and drive at least sometimes, a number that adds up to more than 121 million times someone who has had one too many is on the road each year, the latest government survey finds.
Drunk-driving laws help but there’s another possible way to trim the numbers, the researchers said – by enforcing stricter seat-belt laws.
Amy Jewett and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at a detailed 2012 survey of American health behavior. One of the questions people were asked was: “During the past 30 days, how many times have you driven when you’ve had perhaps too much to drink?”
“Alcohol-impaired driving rates varied by more than fourfold among states, and were highest in the Midwest U.S. Census region."
Once the survey was extrapolated to the U.S. population, it worked out to 4.2 million people. And it’s probably an underestimate, they said. People might not confess to drinking and driving, they might not admit it to themselves, and the study didn’t cover teenage drivers under the age of 18.
“Alcohol-impaired driving crashes account for approximately one third of all crash fatalities in the United States,” Jewett’s team wrote in their report, published in the CDC’s weekly bulletin on death and disease.
“In 2013, 10,076 persons died in crashes in which at least one driver had a blood alcohol concentration of (at least) 0.08 grams per deciliter, the legal limit for adult drivers in the United States.”
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The rates varied a lot by state, with the highest per-capita rate in Hawaii and the lowest in Utah.
“Alcohol-impaired driving rates varied by more than fourfold among states, and were highest in the Midwest U.S. Census region,” Jewett’s team wrote.
“Men accounted for 80 percent of episodes, with young men aged 21–34 years accounting for 32 percent of all episodes.”
Some of the associations were obvious. States where more people drink in general had higher rates of people admitting to driving after having a few.
“For example, in 2013, the estimated proportion of adults who consumed alcohol varied from 31 percent in Utah to 65 percent in Wisconsin,” the researchers wrote.
"These findings suggest that fatalities among alcohol-impaired drivers could be substantially reduced if every state had a primary seat belt law.”
And people who said they sometimes binged on alcohol were more likely to say they’d driven under the influence.
But one association stood out. States with so-called primary seat-belt laws – which allow police to pull over a driver if they see someone without a seat-belt on – had lower rates of alcohol-impaired driving.
“Seat belts are about 50 percent effective in preventing driver fatalities in crashes, and seat belt use is higher in states with a primary seat belt law compared with use in states with a secondary law,” Jewett’s team wrote.
“In this report, persons who did not always wear a seat belt had alcohol-impaired driving rates three times higher than those who were always belted. In addition, consistent seat belt use was especially low among alcohol-impaired drivers living in states with a secondary seat belt law,” they added.
“Taken together, these findings suggest that fatalities among alcohol-impaired drivers could be substantially reduced if every state had a primary seat belt law.”