Drunk Driving vs. Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths in U.S. Cities

In an online CBS publication, Top Cities for Drunk Drivers, CBS compiled a list of the 10 U.S. cities with the highest conviction rates of driving under the influence (DUI). CBS retrieved the data from an insurance shopping website, Insurance.com, which claims to have recorded the data by analyzing insurance applications in the twenty largest U.S. cities with the exception of Boston. Surprisingly, the cities with the highest DUI rates were not the cities with the most alcohol-related traffic deaths.drunk driving deaths

According to the CBS report, the following U.S. cities have the most drunk-driving convictions; they are listed in order from most to fewest insurance applicants with DUI offenses:

  1. San Diego, Calif.
  2. San Jose, Calif.
  3. Charlotte, N.C.
  4. Phoenix, Ariz.
  5. Columbus, Ohio
  6. Indianapolis, Ind.
  7. Los Angeles, Calif.
  8. San Francisco, Calif.
  9. Austin, Texas
  10. Jacksonville, Fla.

This list might indicate which U.S. cities arrest the most offenders, but it isn’t, nor was it meant to be, an accurate representation of which U.S. cities see the most fatalities from drunk driving. For that, a study by Louisiana State University Health Science Center’s Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, The Population Consumption Model, Alcohol Control Practices and Alcohol-Related Traffic Fatalities, provides the necessary data for determining which cities are most prone to DUI-related deaths.

For this study, 107 cities were surveyed and 97 responded. An overwhelming majority of the cities with the highest alcohol related traffic deaths are not among those with the most convictions. According to the paper’s authors, Deborah A. Cohen, Karen Mason and Richard Scribner, the following 10 cities have the most DUI-related deaths per 100,000 people:

  1. Dallas, Texas – 10.23
  2. Kansas City, Mo. – 10.10
  3. Albuquerque, N.M. – 8.62
  4. Nashville-Davidson, Tenn. – 8.47
  5. Detroit, Mich. – 8.22
  6. Phoenix, Ariz. – 8.14
  7. St. Louis, Mo. – 7.92
  8. Chattanooga, Tenn. – 7.92
  9. Newark, N.J. – 7.55
  10. Tampa, Fla. – 7.55

As can be seen when comparing the two lists, only one city, Phoenix, appears on both of them. Since it seems only logical that cities with more DUI offenders would see more alcohol-related fatalities, most people are surprised by these results. But why would cities with fewer DUIs see more DUI-related deaths than those with the most? Cohen, Mason and Scribner suggest that these variations in the statistics “might be explained by differences in local alcohol control policies and practices.”

To support their theory, the authors conducted a survey of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agencies and city police departments that participate in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which is part of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. According to the study, different laws and regulations associated with the accessibility of alcohol were a determining factor. The evidence showed that cities with nine or fewer of the twenty regulations had 146 percent more alcohol-related traffic deaths than cities with 15 or more.

After examining the evidence, the authors came to a unanimous conclusion: Alcohol-related traffic deaths are closely associated with local alcohol laws and regulations. The authors proposed stricter disciplinary action, more restriction on alcohol accessibility and more stringent licensing requirements as possible ways to reduce these deaths. The study indicated that there were 392 excess deaths annually.

There are two main scientific models to consider when looking at a city’s alcohol consumption. One of the most common models is the “medical disease” model; it suggests that alcohol-related problems have a genetic basis and are simply influenced by environmental and psychological factors. In other words, the theory doesn’t entertain the product-of-environment idea; it only allows for environment to be a contributor, not an underlying cause.

However, according to an epidemiological viewpoint on alcohol use, which is also called the “population consumption model” or the “single distribution theory,” any individual’s alcohol consumption serves as part of a city’s or community’s overall consumption. The theory also states that alcohol-related health problems are directly related to a city’s or community’s per capita alcohol consumption.

From 1995 to 1997, there were roughly 50,562 alcohol-related traffic deaths annually, which was, sadly, a significant improvement over the two previous decades. The Population Consumption Model, Alcohol Control Practices and Alcohol-Related Traffic Fatalities attributed the reduction in fatal incidents to “declines in alcohol consumption, [the] enactment of the minimum drinking age on a national level and widespread adoption of deterrence strategies.”

Because states retain their power to control matters pertaining to health, welfare and safety, DUI enforcement, deterrence measures and the severity of DUI punishment can all vary wildly from place to place. In addition, counties and cities are often allowed to establish even harsher discipline than the state. This explains why cities with the highest drinking and driving rates aren’t necessarily the ones with the most alcohol-related traffic deaths: The cities most prone to alcohol-related traffic deaths are cities with insufficient deterrence measures, easy access to alcohol, inadequate enforcement or lenient laws and regulations.

Statistics also show that other control measures are effective in reducing alcohol-related deaths; cities in which alcohol vendors are issued fines and liquor license suspensions have a lower rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths than cities that issue vendors waivers or warnings.

Both the medical disease model and the population consumption model agree that environmental factors affect the rate of alcohol-related fatalities, but they disagree on whether it’s the primary factor. As regulations stiffen and more cities and states adopt harsher punishment, increased awareness and ample enforcement, the rate of drinking and driving deaths continues to decline, but certain cities are farther behind than others. Cities with tougher penalties, less access to alcohol and stricter licensing requirements consistently boast lower alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

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  1. The term “alcohol-related traffic deaths” means that at least one passenger, or a pedestrian, had a BAC of .01, at the time of death. It has nothing to do with the driver, who could have been perfectly sober at the time. Thus, the DWI, or DUI, conviction rate will not match up–a sober individual cannot be arrested if a drunk pedestrian staggers out in front of him, and becomes roadkill. Another scenario is that two sober individuals have a crash, but a drunk passenger gets killed in the accident. It has nothing to do with traffic laws–just the way the federal government keeps the statistics, and the definition of “alcohol-related” traffic fatality.

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