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Technology Transfer Series

Number 265, February 2002


Starting in 1968, the Department of Transportation periodically has conducted comprehensive reviews of the state of knowledge on alcohol and traffic safety.

A new review, conducted by Mid-America Research Institute for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), covers the scientific literature published since 1990. Over 700 documents were reviewed. Most of these focused on studies relevant to the alcohol-crash problem in the United States but studies from other countries were included as appropriate.

The report covers the spectrum of research on drinking and driving, including the alcohol crash problem, alcohol's effects on the body and resulting driving impairment, drinking and driving patterns, and the effectiveness of countermeasures for impaired driving.


The Alcohol-Crash Problem

The size of the alcohol-crash problem has declined significantly since 1982. Alcohol-related fatal crashes are currently a smaller societal problem than they were 10 years ago. However, over 15,000 people still die each year in alcohol-related crashes, and over 12,000 of these are killed in crashes involving a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .10 or higher. There is evidence that drivers at BACs much higher than .10 account for a disproportionate share of the alcohol-crash problem.

Characteristics of Persons Who Drink & Drive

The characteristics of persons who drink and drive are generally better known today than ever before. Basic demographic data for age and gender exist in abundance, and data are starting to appear on ethnic and racial characteristics. It is more clear than ever that young, white males account for a large share of the alcohol-crash problem. Other demographic information is available for certain groups of drinking-drivers -- for example, those arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI) -- but, except in small studies, demographics are not available for drivers in crashes.

Drinking Patterns & Drinking-Driving Patterns

The drinking patterns and drinking-driving patterns of drinking drivers are becoming better defined. The role of prior DWI convictions in drinking-driving is better understood now, indicating that while multiple DWI offenders have higher recidivism rates than first offenders, persons with no priors at all may have the highest involvement in total crashes and in alcohol-related crashes of all degrees of severity. Further, research suggests that repeat DWI offenders and first offenders share many of the same characteristics, such as being white, male, and under 40 years old.

Pedestrians and Bicyclists

Pedestrians and bicyclists account for a much smaller, but still highly significant, portion of the alcohol-crash problem (approximately 1,500 fatally injured pedestrians at .10+ BAC). Data from NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) indicate that 34% of fatal pedestrian crashes involved a BAC of .10 or higher, and that very high BACs were common among alcohol-positive pedestrians. The contribution of alcohol-impaired bicyclists to the problem is much lower than that of pedestrians, probably on the order of a few hundred fatalities a year at the .10+ BAC level.


Motorcycles have the highest rate of alcohol-related fatal crashes, followed by light trucks, passenger cars, and large trucks in that order.

Responses to the Problem

Activity on alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures has increased enormously in the past ten years. The focus has most often been on reducing driving after drinking, although there has been increased attention given to reducing excessive drinking before driving. The great majority of programs have used strategies of deterrence and incapacitation carried out by elements of the criminal justice system.

Countermeasures showing positive results include:
  • Administrative license revocation (ALR) laws in conjunction with strong public information and education (PI&E) activities;
  • Laws reducing the illegal BAC limit to .08, in conjunction with ALR laws;
  • Raising the minimum drinking age to 21;
  • For drivers under the age of 21, lowering the legal BAC to .02 or below;
  • Comprehensive changes to state laws accompanied by enhanced activity to implement those laws;
  • Enforcement of existing DWI laws in general (and use of sobriety checkpoints in particular) with strong PI&E components;
  • Sanctioning actions against the driver's license;
  • Carefully designed treatment and rehabilitation programs when used in combination with other sanctions;
  • Certain alternative sanctions requiring extended contact with the offenders, including intensive supervision probation, electronic monitoring, and sanctioning programs tailored to individual offenders;
  • Removal of an offender's vehicle (or access to it);
  • Alcohol interlocks (while the interlocks are installed);
  • Comprehensive community-based programs; and
  • Multi-component pedestrian programs.


    For a copy of Alcohol and Highway Safety 2001: A Review of the State of Knowledge (207 pages), write to the Office of Research and Traffic Records, NHTSA, NTS-31, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC, 20590, or send a fax to (202) 366-7096. Amy Berning was the contract manager for this project.

    U.S. Department
    of Transportation
    National Highway
    Traffic Safety

    400 Seventh Street, S.W. NTS-31
    Washington, DC 20590

    Traffic Tech is a publication to disseminate information about traffic safety programs, including evaluations, innovative programs, and new publications. Feel free to copy it as you wish.

    If you would like to receive a copy contact:

    Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., Editor, Evaluation Staff
    Traffic Safety Programs
    fax (202) 366-7096