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Number 258                                                                                              October 2001

U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590

Alcohol Involvement In Fatal Crashes
Comparisons Among Countries

Much of the progress that has been made in impaired driving in the last decade has been assisted by lessons learned from other countries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored a systematic effort to gather information about impaired driving around the world. The first of two projects, DWI Laws in Other Countries, (see Traffic Tech No. 221) collected information on laws and policies related to drinking and driving in industrialized countries. This report takes the next step to summarize information about the measurement of alcohol involvement in crashes.

Countries Included

Since the main purpose of this project was to compare laws, policies, countermeasures, and alcohol-related fatalities of other countries with the United States, data collection was limited to countries that would be considered most directly comparable to the United States, economically and demographically, and countries with whom we have the most direct dealings. These countries include:

  • Members of the European Union (EU), including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom
  • Other western European countries, including Norway and Switzerland
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • New Zealand


Most of the information was gathered through inquiries to key informants identified in each of the countries of interest. Most informants were from government transportation agencies and some were from universities. In some cases, available information was gathered from other published or unpublished sources. Some countries did not respond with information despite our repeated requests.

Definition of Alcohol Involvement

Countries vary in their definitions of what constitutes an alcohol-involved traffic crash. In some countries, a crash is defined as alcohol-involved if any alcohol is detected in the driver (for example, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, United States). Other countries extend this definition to include alcohol detected in pedestrians that were involved in the crash (for example, Belgium, Canada, Spain, United States). Other countries define a crash as alcohol-involved if a driver has a blood alcohol content (BAC) over the legal limit for that country (such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, United Kingdom, United States). New Zealand and Sweden define alcohol involvement based on police reports that alcohol was involved.

Definition of Fatality

Most countries consider a death that occurs within 30 days following a crash as being caused by the crash. France has a time limit of eight days and Canada's limit is 12 months. Some countries do not have a specific time limit (for example, Belgium, Denmark, and Finland).

Time Limits on Alcohol Testing

The BAC level changes as alcohol is digested and metabolized and the time lapse after a crash before testing occurs will influence the accuracy of the test in determining the extent to which alcohol impairment played a role in the crash. Some countries do not report a time limit for this test (e.g., Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States). Austria tests at the scene of the crash, or within a few hours at the hospital, and France tests at any reasonable time.

Percent of Drivers Tested

The accuracy of estimates of alcohol involvement in fatal crashes depends on whether the reports of alcohol involvement are free of bias. In general, the higher the proportion of drivers and pedestrians tested, the less bias there will be. In some countries (e.g., Sweden), testing only occurs when the police suspect the presence of alcohol, and certain types of drivers, like women or the elderly, may be less likely to be tested. The lowest reported testing rate for drivers was Spain (17.5% of drivers were tested in 1998). The highest rates were reported in Canada (83.1%) and France (about 90%). The United States

tests about 63% of fatally injured drivers and this rate varies from state to state.

Use of Autopsy Reports

Autopsies or post-mortems are performed routinely on a significant proportion of people killed in traffic crashes in some countries. In two of the countries studied (Norway and the United Kingdom), the results of these examinations are reported to traffic safety agencies and are used in the calculation of alcohol involvement in fatal crashes. In other countries (Australia and Sweden), while autopsies are performed on 90% or more of fatally injured drivers or pedestrians, these results are not used in the calculation of official statistics.

Concerns about Accuracy

Inconsistencies in measurement and reporting parameters impair our ability to make comparisons from country to country about alcohol involvement in fatal crashes. In addition, the accuracy of reports, even within the measurement parameters provided, is questionable. The number of recorded traffic crashes in national data bases does not reflect the true level of alcohol related crashes because, in each member state, there is an element of underreporting. Underreporting can be very high in some southern European Union countries where the results of police breath tests or blood tests undertaken by the appropriate authorities are only partially recorded in national databases and where the level of enforcement is relatively low.

Comparability of Statistics

A recent European Union Working Group report makes several suggestions for increasing the comparability of statistics among EU member countries. Many of these suggestions could apply to worldwide comparisons.

  • A maximum legal BAC limit of .05 percent
  • Increasing the proportion of alcohol test results recorded in national databases
  • Working toward common adjustment procedures for missing data values
  • Acceptance of a common definition of drinking and driving.


To order a copy of the report, Alcohol Involvement in Fatal Crashes: Comparisons Among Countries (15 pages plus appendices), 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. Patty Ellison-Potter, Ph.D., was the contract manager.



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
(202) 366-2759, fax (202) 366-7096

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