Driving under the influence of alcohol is a major risk factor for road traffic injuries and deaths. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions, and road users who are impaired by alcohol have a significantly higher risk of being involved in a crash. In fact, alcohol-impaired crash fatalities accounted for 30 percent of all crash fatalities in the United States in 2020.
However, there has been a remarkable reduction in alcohol-related driving fatalities since the 1980s, thanks to various factors that have improved road safety and deterred drink-driving. In this article, we will explore some of these factors and how they have contributed to saving lives on the road.
Safer Roads and Roadsides
One of the factors that affect the level and severity of alcohol-related crashes is the design and condition of the road infrastructure. Poor road design, such as sharp curves, narrow lanes, inadequate lighting, and lack of signage, can increase the likelihood and impact of crashes, especially when drivers are impaired by alcohol. Therefore, improving the quality and safety of roads and roadsides can help prevent or mitigate the consequences of alcohol-related crashes.
Some examples of road safety measures that have been implemented in many countries include:
- Installing median barriers, guardrails, rumble strips, and other devices to separate traffic flows and prevent head-on collisions or run-off-road crashes.
- Providing adequate lighting, signage, markings, and signals to improve visibility and guidance for drivers.
- Implementing roundabouts, speed bumps, traffic calming measures, and other engineering solutions to reduce speed and conflict points.
- Designating pedestrian crossings, bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and other facilities to protect vulnerable road users from motorized traffic.
- Improving road maintenance and repair to ensure smooth and safe driving conditions.
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, improving roadway safety features could save an estimated 20,000 lives and prevent about 1.2 million injuries annually.
Another factor that influences the outcome of alcohol-related crashes is the safety performance of the vehicles involved. Vehicle safety features can help prevent crashes from occurring or reduce the severity of injuries in the event of a crash. Therefore, enhancing vehicle safety standards and technologies can play a vital role in reducing alcohol-related driving fatalities.
Some examples of vehicle safety features that have been developed and adopted in recent decades include:
- Seat belts, air bags, head restraints, and other occupant protection systems that reduce the risk of injury or death in a crash.
- Anti-lock braking systems (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC), traction control systems (TCS), and other active safety systems that help drivers maintain control of their vehicles in critical situations.
- Collision avoidance systems (CAS), lane departure warning systems (LDWS), blind spot detection systems (BSDS), and other advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that warn drivers of potential hazards or intervene automatically to avoid or mitigate crashes.
- Ignition interlocks, alcolocks, breathalyzers, and other devices that prevent drivers from starting or operating their vehicles if they are impaired by alcohol.
According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, equipping all passenger vehicles with four advanced safety technologies (forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, and rearview cameras) could prevent or mitigate up to 1.9 million crashes annually.
A third factor that affects the prevalence and impact of alcohol-related crashes is the implementation and enforcement of effective policies that regulate alcohol consumption and driving behavior. Policies that aim to reduce the harmful use of alcohol and deter drink-driving can have a significant impact on reducing alcohol-related driving fatalities.
Some examples of policy measures that have been enacted and enforced in many countries include:
- Establishing blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limits for drivers at a maximum of ≤ 0.05 g/dL or lower for the general population, and at 0.02 g/dL or lower for novice and commercial drivers.
- Specifying the penalties for violating BAC limits or refusing roadside breath tests, such as fines, license suspension or revocation, imprisonment, community service, or mandatory education or treatment programs.
- Conducting sobriety checkpoints, random breath-testing, or saturation patrols to detect and apprehend impaired drivers.
- Raising the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) to 21 years or higher.
- Restricting the availability of alcohol by limiting the hours or days of sale, regulating the number or location of outlets, or imposing taxes or minimum prices.
- Promoting public awareness and education campaigns on the dangers and consequences of drink-driving.
According to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, implementing eight key policy strategies could prevent an estimated 11,000 deaths and save $34 billion annually in the United States.
Alcohol-related driving fatalities have declined significantly since the 1980s, thanks to a combination of factors that have improved road safety and deterred drink-driving. These factors include safer roads and roadsides, safer vehicles, and safer policies. However, there is still room for improvement, as alcohol-impaired driving remains a major public health and social problem in many countries. Therefore, it is important to continue to invest in research, innovation, and collaboration to further reduce the burden of alcohol-related crashes and save more lives on the road.