Drunk Driving

Overview

Every day, almost 30 people in the United States die in drunk-driving crashes — that's one person every 50 minutes. These deaths have fallen by a third in the last three decades; however, drunk-driving crashes claim more than 10,000 lives per year. In 2010, the most recent year for which cost data is available, these deaths and damages contributed to a cost of $44 billion that year.

The Issue

How alcohol affects driving ability

Traffic Safety Facts

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 a BAC of .08 grams of alcohol per deciliter (g/dL) 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 a BAC of .08 or higher. However, even a small amount of alcohol can affect driving ability. In 2018, there were 1,878 people killed in alcohol-related crashes where drivers had lower alcohol levels (BACs of .01 to .07 g/dL).

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

The Effects of Blood Alcohol Concentration

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) in g/dLTypical EffectsPredictable Effects on Driving
 
.02Some 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)
.05Exaggerated 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
.08Muscle 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
.10Clear deterioration of reaction time and control, slurred speech, poor coordination, and slowed thinkingReduced ability to maintain lane position and brake appropriately
.15Far 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 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 BACs of .08 g/dL or higher). In 2018, there were 10,511 people killed in these preventable crashes. In fact, on average over the 10-year period from 2009-2018, more than 10,000 people died every year in drunk-driving crashes.

In every state, it’s illegal to drive with a BAC of .08 or higher, yet one person was killed in a drunk-driving crash every 50 minutes in the United States in 2018.

Men are more likely than women to be driving drunk in fatal crashes. In 2018, 21% of men were drunk in these crashes, compared to 14% for women.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and about a quarter of those crashes involve an underage drinking driver. In 2018, 24% of young drivers 15 to 20 years old who were killed in crashes had BACs of .01 g/dL or higher.

To reduce alcohol-related fatal crashes among youth, all states have adopted a minimum legal drinking age of 21. NHTSA estimates that minimum-drinking-age laws have saved 31,959 lives from 1975 to 2017.

Yet in 2018 the highest percentage of drunk drivers (with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher) were 21- to 24-year-olds, at 27%, followed by 25- to 34-year-olds, at 26%. Men are most likely to be involved in this type of crash, with 4 male drunk drivers for every female drunk driver.

In 2018, 4,675 people operating a motorcycle were killed in traffic crashes. Of those motorcycle riders, 1,213 (26%) were drunk (BAC of .08 g/dL or higher).

Motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were found to have the highest percentage (25%) of alcohol-impaired drivers than any other vehicle types.

The 40+ age group made up 53% of drunk motorcyclists killed in 2018.

Repeat offenders who drink and drive are a very real, very deadly problem. Drivers with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher involved in fatal crashes were 4.5 times more likely to have prior convictions for driving while impaired (DWI) than were drivers with no alcohol (9% and 2%, respectively).

When it comes to drunk driving, it affects more than just the driver. In 2018, among children (14 and younger) killed in motor vehicle crashes, almost one-fourth (22%) were killed in drunk-driving crashes. Fifty-five 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: 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

Consequences

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

Driving a vehicle while impaired is a dangerous crime. Tough enforcement of drunk-driving laws has been a major factor in reducing drunk-driving 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 cost the driver upwards of $10,000 in fines and legal fees.

Some states require offenders to install ignition interlock devices at the driver’s own expense. An ignition interlock device is a breath test device connected to a vehicle’s ignition. The vehicle will not start unless the driver 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

BEING A RESPONSIBLE DRIVER IS SIMPLE: IF YOU ARE DRINKING, DO NOT DRIVE.

  1. Plan your safe ride home before you start the party, choose a non-drinking friend as a designated driver.
  2. If someone you know has been drinking, do not let that person get behind the wheel. Take their keys and help them arrange a sober ride home. 
  3. If you drink, do not drive for any reason. Call a taxi, a ride-hailing service, or a sober friend. 
  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.

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

NHTSA In Action

NHTSA is dedicated to eliminating risky behaviors on our nation's roads

 

NHTSA, under the leadership of Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, demonstrates its commitment to eliminating drunk driving through research, public awareness campaigns, and state safety grant programs. We will continue until there are zero drunk-driving crashes on our roadways.

Resources

Search for more resources

423 Results
Title Type Audience Date Language
 
NHTSA to Motorists: Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over
Press Release 12/10/2019
Ignition Interlock Toolkit PDF, 3.1 MB
Document Law Enforcement 11/26/2019
Ignition Interlock Toolkit PDF, 3.1 MB
Document State Governments 11/26/2019
U.S. Department of Transportation Announces $1.8 Million to Enhance Highway Safety
Press Release Advocacy Groups 10/02/2019
U.S. Department of Transportation Announces $1.8 Million to Enhance Highway Safety
Press Release State Governments 10/02/2019
Related resources for this topic

Campaigns

Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over
Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving
Ride Sober or Get Pulled Over