Drunk Driving


Every day, 28 people in the United States die in an alcohol-related vehicle crash—that's one person every 53 minutes. Drunk driving fatalities have fallen by a third in the last three decades; however, the chance of being in an alcohol-impaired crash is still one in three over the course of a lifetime. These deaths and damages contribute to a cost of $52B per year.

The Issue

How alcohol affects driving ability

Know the Facts Interactions with alcohol and other substances in the body such as certain medications or illegal drugs increase impairment and make driving more risky. Also see Drugged Driving

Alcohol is a substance that reduces the function of the brain, impairing thinking, reasoning and muscle coordination. All these abilities are essential to operating a vehicle safely.

As alcohol levels rise in a person’s system, the negative effects on the central nervous system increase, too. Alcohol is absorbed directly through the walls of the stomach and small intestine. Then it passes into the bloodstream where it accumulates until it is metabolized by the liver. Alcohol level is measured by the weight of the alcohol in a certain volume of blood. This is called Blood Alcohol Concentration, or BAC. At BAC of 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood, crash risk increases exponentially. Because of this risk, it’s illegal in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to drive with 0.08 BAC or higher. However, even a small amount of alcohol can affect driving ability. 1,764 people were killed in 2014 is alcohol-related crashes where BAC was less than 0.08 BAC.

BAC is measured with a breathalyzer, a device that measures the amount of alcohol in a drive driver’s breath, or by a blood test.

The Effects of Blood Alcohol Concentration

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)Typical EffectsPredictable Effects on Driving
.02%Some loss of judgment, relaxation, slight body warmth, altered moodDecline in visual functions (rapid tracking of a moving target), decline in ability to perform two tasks at the same time (divided attention)
.05%Exaggerated behavior, may have loss of small-muscle control (e.g., focusing your eyes), impaired judgment, usually good feeling, lowered alertness, release of inhibitionReduced coordination, reduced ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, reduced response to emergency driving situations
.08%Muscle coordination becomes poor (e.g., balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing), harder to detect danger, judgment, self-control, reasoning, and memory are impairedConcentration, short-term memory loss, speed control, reduced information processing capability (e.g., signal detection, visual search), impaired perception
.10%Clear deterioration of reaction time and control, slurred speech, poor coordination, and slowed thinkingReduced ability to maintain lane position and brake appropriately
.15%Far less muscle control than normal, vomiting may occur (unless this level is reached slowly or a person has developed a tolerance for alcohol), major loss of balanceSubstantial impairment in vehicle control, attention to driving task, and in necessary visual and auditory information processing
Table describing BAC and typical effects of various BAC levels
The Issue

Risk Factors

Driving After Drinking

Driving After Drinking

Driving after drinking is deadly. Yet it still continues to happen across the United States. If you drive while impaired, you could get arrested, or worse-- be involved in a traffic crash that causes serious injury or death.

Approximately one-third of all traffic crash fatalities in the United States involve drunk drivers (with blood alcohol concentrations [BACs] of .08 of higher). In 2014, there were 9,967 people killed in these preventable crashes. In fact, on average, over 10,000 people have died each year (2010 to 2014) in drunk-driving crashes.

In every State, it’s illegal to drive with a BAC of .08 or higher, yet one person is killed in a drunk-driving crash every 53 minutes in the United States.

Men are more likely than women to be driving drunk in fatal crashes. In 2014, 23 percent of males were drunk in these crashes, compared to 15 percent for females.

Take steps to prevent drunk driving:

●      If you will be drinking, plan on not driving. Plan your safe ride home before you start the party. Designate a sober driver ahead of time.

●      If you become intoxicated, do not drive for any reason. Call a taxi, phone a sober friend or family member, use public transportation, etc..  Also, try NHTSA’s SaferRide mobile app, which allows users to call a taxi or friend and identify their location so they can be picked up.

●      If someone you know has been drinking, do not let that person get behind the wheel. Take their keys, take them home, or help them arrange a sober ride. 

●      If you see an impaired driver on the road, contact your local law enforcement. Your actions could help save someone’s life.


Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and about a quarter of those crashes involve an underage drinking driver. Young drivers, ages 16-24, make up 40% of drivers involved in a fatal alcohol-impaired crash.

To reduce alcohol-related fatal crashes among youth, all states have adopted a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21. NHTSA estimates that minimum drinking-age laws (21 years old) have saved 29,834 lives.

Young adults ages 25-34 make up another 33% of fatal alcohol-impaired crash. Men are most likely to be involved in this type of crash with 4.5 male alcohol-impaired drivers for every female impaired driver.

estimated lives saved by minimum drinking age laws graph


In 2014, there were 4,311 motorcycle riders killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes. Of those, 1,287 (30%) were alcohol-impaired (BAC of .08 or higher). In addition, there were 299 (7%) fatally injured motorcycle riders who had lower alcohol levels (BACs of .01 to .07 g/dL).

Motorcycle riders have the highest overall rate of alcohol impairment in fatal crashes. In 2014, 29 percent of the motorcycle riders killed were riding impaired.

The highest percentages of fatally injured, alcohol-impaired motorcycle riders were in the 35-to-39 age group (42%), followed by 40-to-45 age groups (41%), and the 45-to-49 age group (35%).

Alcohol Abuse and Cost

Repeat offenders that drink and drive are a very real, very deadly problem. Drivers with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher involved in fatal crashes were seven times more likely to have prior convictions for driving while impaired (DWI) than were drivers with no alcohol (7% and 1%, respectively).

When it comes to driving drunk, it affects more than just the driver. In 2014, approximately 1 in 5 children killed in traffic crashes (14 and younger) were passengers in drunk-driving crashes. Fifty-six percent of the time, it was the child’s own driver who was drunk.

In addition to the human toll drunk driving takes on our country, the financial impact is devastating as well: based on 2010 numbers (the most recent year for which cost data is available), impaired-driving crashes cost the United States $44 billion annually.

The Issue


Driving a vehicle while impaired is a dangerous crime. Tough enforcement of drinking and driving laws is a major factor in the decrease in drinking and driving related deaths since the 1980s. Charges range from misdemeanors to felony offenses, and penalties for impaired driving can include driver’s license revocation, fines, and jail time. It’s also extremely expensive. A first-time offense can the driver cost upwards of $20,000 in fines and legal fees.


Some states require offenders to install ignition interlock devices at the driver’s own expense. A ignition interlock device is a breath test device connected to a vehicle’s ignition. The vehicle will not start unless the blows into the interlock and has a BAC below a pre-set low limit, usually .02 g/dL. NHTSA strongly supports the expansion of ignition interlocks as a proven technology that keeps drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.

The Issue

Responsible behavior


  1. Before drinking, choose a non-drinking friend as a designated driver.
  2. Don’t let your friends drive impaired.
  3. If you have been drinking, call a taxi or ride service. Some communities have Safe Ride programs for a free ride home.
  4. If you’re hosting a party where alcohol will be served, make sure all guests leave with a sober driver.
  5. Always wear your seat belt— it’s your best defense against impaired drivers.
NHTSA in Action

NHTSA is dedicated to eliminating risky behaviors for a safer road.


Through research, public awareness campaigns, and state safety grant programs, NHTSA demonstrates its commitment to eliminating drunk driving. In the three decades, our programs have consistently reduced alcohol-related crash fatalities. We will continue until there are zero drunk driving crashes on our roadways.

Safety Success

Lives saved from drunk driving crashes in the past 10 years
33 %
Decrease in drunk driving deaths in Massachusetts in 2015
22 %
Decrease in drunk driving deaths in Kansas in 2015


Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over
Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving
The Ultimate Party Foul

See resources on drunk driving.

Search for more resources

133 Results
Title Type Audience Date
U.S. DOT urges public to ‘Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over’ and announces funding for innovative technology to end drunk driving
Press Release 12/14/2016
Motorists Reminded to 'Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over' This Labor Day
Press Release Advocacy Groups, Car Owners, Federal Government, Law Enforcement, Parents & Caregivers, State Governments, Students 09/01/2016
NHTSA Data Shows Traffic Deaths up 7.7 Percent in 2015
Press Release Advocacy Groups, Car Owners, Cyclists, Federal Government, Journalists, Parents & Caregivers, Pedestrians, State Governments 07/01/2016
U.S. DOT Announces Steep Increase in Roadway Deaths Based on 2015 Early Estimates and Convenes First Regional Summit to Drive Traffic Safety Behavior Changes
Press Release Advocacy Groups, Car Owners, Federal Government, Journalists, Parents & Caregivers, Researchers, State Governments 02/05/2016
U.S. DOT Reminds Americans to 'Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over' This Holiday Season
Press Release Advocacy Groups, Car Owners, Federal Government, Parents & Caregivers, State Governments, Students 12/17/2015
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