During the 1970s, alcohol was involved in roughly two-thirds of all U.S. traffic fatalities — a clear sign that something needed to change. Luckily, in the following decades, circumstances did begin to improve.
The launch of multi-faceted public relations and education campaigns coupled with the strengthening of laws that targeted dangerously impaired drivers, as well as the increased use of seatbelts and airbags, led to a steep decline in traffic deaths. In fact, alcohol-related traffic fatalities dropped by 53 percent between 1982 and 2011.
The biggest, and I would argue, most consequential change was the negative stigma that developed around drunk driving. The social pressure, buttressed by support from within the alcohol and hospitality industries, created a safer environment that demanded accountability and responsible use. Shifting the social norms around drunk driving saved more lives than any single law ever could.
But today the downward trend in drunk driving deaths has slowed. According to government data, between 2011 and 2016, annual alcohol-related traffic fatalities oscillated between 9,878 and 10,497. In fact, despite a plethora of new anti–drunk driving laws passed over the last two decades, the proportion of drunk driving deaths relative to overall traffic fatalities has remained stubbornly around 30 percent.
So how do we generate new momentum in the fight to save lives?
The answer lies in focusing on policies that work, rather than legislation that merely sounds “tough on drunk driving.”
Here is one key piece of data that should be taken into account: Seventy percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve drivers with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.15 percent or above. The average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash in the U.S. is 0.18 — more than twice the federal legal limit of 0.08 BAC. It’s obvious where the problem lies, and it isn’t with someone who enjoys a drink with dinner.
This is why in-vogue attempts to lower the legal limit from 0.08 BAC to 0.05 BAC — which for some can be reached after consuming little more than a single drink —simply won’t work. Why would a driver who already breaks the law by driving with an extremely high BAC level abruptly change their behavior when the legal limit is lowered to 0.05?
Instead, traffic safety officials need to focus on high-BAC drivers and repeat offenders who are responsible for the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. One surefire way to make progress is to ensure that DWI offenders who are mandated to install an ignition interlock device (IID) — or in-vehicle breathalyzer — actually do so. Because current compliance rates are alarmingly low.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Research Office, only about 20 percent of DWI offenders mandated to install an IID actually do so. (It’s not shocking that someone irresponsible enough to drive drunk is also not responsible enough to install their interlock as ordered.) More recent state-reported data reveal compliance rates as low as 6 and 8 percent. Shoring up enforcement of these otherwise effective IID laws will go a long way towards saving lives.
In concert with enforcing IID laws, policymakers should ramp up roving and saturation patrols, which actively seek out impaired drivers on the road, and strengthen 24/7 sobriety programs, which address the root cause of drunk driving, problem drinking.
The U.S. has made a lot of progress in the fight against drunk driving, but much work remains. To move forward we need policies that actually target the problem, rather than feel-good legislation that is more illusion than solution.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.