Drunk driving has always seemed like this incurable chronic road condition. There is no shortage of embarrassing celebrity arrests for driving under the influence or horrible stories about drunk driving accidents. We all have stories of our own or know someone that may be a drunk driving menace. The thing is, everyone knows it’s a serious issue but nothing seems to abate the problem.
The statistics are rather grim. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released their highway fatality numbers for 2017 just this month and the good news is that fatalities are down 2 percent but that is only after increases the past two years. Even with a 2 percent decline, the number of road deaths for 2017 was 37,133, a third of which were DUI related.
There are really two main methods employed for curbing drunk driving incidences; education and laws. Between non-profits like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and federal and state governments, the country spends billions on drunk driving education. It is after all a multibillion dollar problem with some estimates putting the cost on the country at over $100 billion every year.
It doesn’t seem to appear that drunk driving education seems to have an effect, though. It is hard to tell as there are not many studies done on the effectiveness of education initiatives. A review of studies in 2005 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on the effectiveness of school-based programs was inconclusive.
It’s theoretically much easier to see whether harsher laws are more effective at curbing drunk driving by simply comparing states with harsher laws versus states with more lenient laws. Let’s do some simple analysis to see if we can determine if that is the case.
Let’s start with a hypothesis; that it may be the case that we simply need to increase the severity of penalties for the laws to be more effective at reducing DUI deaths. Consider Pennsylvania’s pending amendments to the states DUI laws. Pennsylvania is regarded as having some of the most lenient DUI laws in the country. Act 153 is primarily focused on increasing penalties for repeat offenders who have caused a fatality.
Lee Ciccarelli, a DUI defense attorney in West Chester, PA, explains that under the current law if someone kills a person while driving intoxicated and is convicted, they will face a minimum three year prison term. If that same person is released from prison and again causes a death while under the influence of alcohol, the punishment they face will be exactly the same, three years in prison. The change in law makes it so that if a person has a prior conviction for DUI and then causes a death due to intoxicated driving, the penalty is elevated to a first degree felony.
That person could potentially be placed in prison for at least five years. If they have two prior convictions for DUI that minimum penalty is increased to seven years.
Whether this change in law will have the desired effect is undetermined. As it is now, even though Pennsylvania has some of the most lenient DUI laws, the percentage of road fatalities in the state attributed to alcohol related impairment is actually slightly below average for the country, 28 percent to 29 percent for the national average. Compare Arizona, which is considered to have the strictest DUI laws, but also attributes 28 percent of road deaths to intoxicated driving. Connecticut, which has some of the harshest DUI laws in the country had the highest rate of deaths due to DUI reasons with 43 percent.
This is of course does not account for other factors such as population, number of roads, alcohol consumption per capita, etc. Just as an example of how difficult it is to draw conclusions from data solely based on severity of the law, let’s compare Illinois and Pennsylvania which have nearly identical population sizes, approximately 12,800,000. Both states consume a similar amount of alcohol per capita annually, 2.32 gallons of ethanol for Illinois and 2.36 for Pennsylvania. Illinois has significantly more miles of road, 305,872 total lane miles compared to 250,199.
Wallethub.com ranks Illinois as having the 19th strictest DUI laws in the country and Pennsylvania as having the 43rd. If your theory is that stricter DUI laws would decrease DUI related deaths, in this comparison you would be wrong. In Illinois, 32 percent of road fatalities are due to alcohol impaired drivers, compared to 28 percent for Pennsylvania, even though Pennsylvania consumes 2 percent more alcohol per person annually.
The other big variance besides strictness of DUI laws between the two states is miles of road. Could we perhaps attribute higher DUI related deaths to there simply being more roads? Let’s do a last comparison. Let’s stay with Pennsylvania and compare it to Michigan. Michigan consumes about the same amount of alcohol as Pennsylvania, 2.34 gallons of ethanol per person annually. Michigan has the same ranking for overall strictness of DUI laws as Pennsylvania. Michigan has a smaller population size of 9,962,000 people but more roads at 256,806 total lane miles.
If you guessed that Michigan had a higher rate of DUI related road deaths than Pennsylvania you would be right, 30 percent to 28 percent respectively. That still does not paint the full picture though because if you look at data from 2016, Michigan’s DUI related fatalities was only at 23 percent for all road deaths compared to 29 percent for Pennsylvania in the same time frame.
Comparing and analyzing data in this way will, unfortunately, gets us no closer to finding a magic bullet for reducing DUI related deaths in this country. We are dealing with a complicated problem that has lots of factors but it does seem fairly clear that increasing punishments for DUI offenders is not enough to solve the problem.