As the countdown inches closer, party-goers may be wondering about which beverage is best to ring in the New Year. If you want to get home safely, you might want to pass on the Budweiser (and maybe take a taxi).
A new study shows that beer drinkers are much more likely to be involved in driving fatalities than people who prefer vodka, Scotch or other spirits. And in fact, states with higher wine consumption actually have fewer drunk driving deaths.
"Beer has the strongest link to traffic fatalities, then spirits, while wine has a negative impact on traffic fatalities," said Bradley Rickard, assistant professor of economics and applied management at Cornell University.
Rickard's study, published in this month's Journal of the American Association of Wine Economists, looked at statistics rather than sociological explanations. But he does have a few theories about why.
"Wine is more likely to be consumed with food. That has an impact. We also suspect that there are different demographic groups that consume this alcohol," he said. "May be the audience that consumes wine is less likely to drink and drive and be in a traffic accident."
Nearly 11,000 Americans were killed in 2010 in accidents involving a drunk driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – a third of all fatal crashes. The good news is that figure was down 20 percent from 2006. The CDC doesn't factor the kind of alcohol consumed, but Rickard's study compared state alcohol consumption by type of drink with traffic deaths.
Rickard said he and his colleagues at Cornell were motivated by recent efforts to block the sale of wine in grocery stories. Opponents said the greater availability of wine would actually result in more youth drinking, health problems and traffic deaths. Rickard says his study actually counters that final argument.
"Our results suggest that arguments against legislation that proposes to introduce wine into grocery stores for reasons related to traffic fatalities may be misguided," the study stated. "Specifically, the conventional wisdom that alcoholic beverages with higher ethanol content are more dangerous in terms of traffic fatalities is not obvious in our simulation results."
Rickard said restricting alcohol sales after 10 p.m. has the strongest negative pressure on drunk driving deaths.
"We're not advocating that people drink wine and then they are fine to drive," Rickard said. "We're just saying look over the last 25 years, it has been those states with higher rate of beer consumption have higher traffic fatalities."
New Mexico, Wyoming, Mississippi and Montana are big beer drinking states with the highest per capita rate of traffic fatalities. While wine-drinkers tend to live in California and the Northeastern states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, which also are at the lower end of per capita traffic deaths.
State laws governing the availability of wine, beer and liquor in grocery stores have not changed since 2000 (except Washington state allowing liquor in large groceries), advocacy groups and law enforcement have made a big push to toughen penalties for drunk drivers, and also for keylock technologies that prevent cars from being started if the operator is impaired.
Still, some advocates say better to play it safe when it comes to New Year's Eve.
"People can drive drunk on any type of alcoholic drink, whether its beer, wine or liquor," said Frank Harris, a spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "MADD believes people should make responsible decisions and the best decision is to designate a driver."