A Closer Look: Why Drunk Driving Deaths Happen in Some States More Than Others

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A recent report about alcohol-impaired driving from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contained some good news and some bad news. The good news is driving-crash fatalities involving alcohol accounted for 28% of all traffic fatalities in 2016, the lowest percentage since 1982. The bad news is alcohol-impaired-driving deaths rose by 5.6% to 10,497 in 2016 from 9,943 in 2014.

24/7 Wall St. recently published a story on the 10 states with the biggest and smallest percentages of drunk driving-related deaths in 2016. In Montana, 45% of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities involve alcohol, the largest percentage of any state. In Utah and Mississippi, 19% of traffic fatalities involve alcohol, the smallest percentage of all states.

Several factors affect the number and rate of drunk driving deaths in a state. One main factor is the state’s population, such as the culture and median age — younger people tend to be at higher risk of drunk driving deaths because they drink more. Another factor is annual vehicle miles traveled, meaning that rural states tend to have higher rates of drunk driving deaths. Other factors include state laws, initiatives such as alcohol ignition interlock programs, and the level of law enforcement — all of which can be a deterrence to drunk driving.

According to the NHTSA report, the number of alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities increased in 2016 from the year before in 29 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. In 17 states and Puerto Rico, the number of deaths attributed to drunk driving declined, and in four states there was no change.

Click here to see the 10 states where drunk driving kills the most people.

Of the top five states where the percentage of alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities increased in 2016, four were sparsely populated, cold-weather states: Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and South Dakota. The fifth area was the District of Columbia. In Montana, 85 of 190 highway deaths were alcohol-related.

“The combination of higher-than-average alcohol consumption and a higher chance of running into dangerous driving conditions with sleet, snow, and ice during the winter months could be the reason that we’re seeing so many of those northern states rank poorly,” said Tyler Spraul, who directed a study on the worst drivers by state for CarInsuranceComparison.com, an online site that compares car insurance quotes.

Some of the cold-weather states have taken steps to address drunk driving issues. In 2015, Montana doubled the minimum fines and increased maximum sentences for those convicted of driving under the influence. But not all states take such steps. South Dakota and the District of Columbia remain the most lenient in America in regard to DUI offenses — neither place imposes jail time for a person’s first two DUI offenses.

Another factor that imperils inebriated motorists in northern states is road conditions. According to a 24/7 Wall St. story published in October 2016, three of the 10 states with the worst public roads conditions are North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, based on statistics from the Federal Highway Administration. These are also three of the top five states with the highest alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities rates.

Harsh weather in these states takes a toll on roads. Road pavement expands and contracts because of large temperature differences in winter and summer, requiring more repairs than in states with more moderate temperatures.

“Rural areas have higher death rates per mile driven, because of higher speeds on more dangerous (non-interstate, two-lane) roads,” said Alexander Wagenaar, research professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “Also, there is longer distance to a quality trauma center.”

Conversely, four of the top five states with smallest percentage of drunk driving-related deaths in 2016 were in the South. In addition to Mississippi and Utah, southern states round the top five states with the lowest percentage of drunk driving-related deaths: Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

“The South has significantly more abstainers, more dry counties, and lower drinking rates,” said Wagenaar. “Those factors interact with the roadway and climate characteristics.”

Utah has among the smallest percentages of drunk-driving related deaths because the state has a significant Mormon population, and Mormons abstain from alcohol. Of the 3 million people who live in Utah, about 63% of them are Mormon.

Dr. Federico Vaca, professor of emergency medicine at Yale University, added that the state culture of highway safety matters. “Social acceptability of impaired driving varies among population groups,” he said. “The culture of safety is dynamic and it has considerable influence in changing policy in this area. Emerging policies in the drunk driving area at the state level are already having effects enforcement of alcohol impaired driving.”

Vaca also said restraint use rates, in particular utilization of seatbelts, is an important factor in drunk driving events. “Impaired drivers are less likely to use their seatbelt and have a higher risk of crash injury and/or fatality,” said Vaca.