In 2020, alcohol consumption among adults over 30 increased significantly in the U.S., as people isolated in their homes during a stressful pandemic. Soon, statistics showed an increase in deadly car crashes involving drunk drivers.
But as life returned to normal and businesses opened their doors in 2021, drunk driving deaths only continued to rise. To understand these troubling trends and follow up on our past DUI reporting, we examined National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data for 2021, the most recent year available. We also explored the latest data from 2021 on DUI arrests from the FBI.
Here are some of our key findings:
The number of deadly drunk-driving crashes rose again in 2021, killing 13,384 people. About 31% of all fatal crashes in 2021 involved drunk drivers.
About 45% of traffic deaths in Montana involved drunk drivers in 2020, the highest rate among all states.
Between 2020 and 2021, the number of drunk drivers involved in deadly crashes increased most in Alaska, the District of Columbia, and Idaho.
Nationally, DUIs make up about one in 10 arrests. In Pennsylvania, about 25% of all arrests in 2021 were for drunk or intoxicated driving.
In 2022, about 20% of drivers reported driving drunk at least once, and 10% said they did it often.
How Often Does Drinking Lead to Traffic Fatalities?
According to the NHTSA, fatal drunk-driving accidents rose in 2020 for the first time in five years and rose again in 2021. There were 13,384 people killed in drunk-driving crashes in 2021 (about one person every 39 minutes), an increase of 14% over the previous year. About 31 percent of all fatal car crashes in 2021 involved drunk drivers.
Though the recent increase in drunk driving fatalities is discouraging, drunk driving has decreased significantly since the early 1980s. Around that time, public awareness campaigns began to shed light on the dangers of drinking and driving. Nearly half of all fatalities in 1982 (48 percent) involved alcohol.
The NHTSA attributed the recent increase in drunk-driving deaths to several factors, including the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, which led to more people driving; the reopening of bars and restaurants, which made it easier for people to drink and drive; and the legalization of marijuana in some states, which can impair driving ability.
Where Are Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths Most Common?
While about 30 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities involved a driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08, this rate varies wildly from state to state. For example, about 44 percent of drivers in fatal crashes were intoxicated in Montana, while the rate was under 25 percent in Mississippi, Georgia, and West Virginia. However, it’s important to point out that states may have different policies for testing blood alcohol content at the scene of a car crash. You can find the full ranking of all 50 states and D.C. at the end of this article.
Consider states like Montana and Texas, which have high rates of fatal accidents caused by impaired drivers. These states have many factors in common that contribute to their high rates of drunk driving fatalities, including:
Rural areas with long distances between towns and cities make it difficult for people to get home without driving.
A culture of drinking and driving that is more tolerant of impaired driving.
A lack of public transportation options makes it difficult to get home without driving.
Notably, Utah has some of the harshest DUI laws, lowering the maximum acceptable BAC for drivers to 0.05 in 2018. An NHTSA analysis of traffic deaths in Utah before and after the law found that the reduction in legal BAC cut fatalities in the state by almost 20 percent. Additionally, Utah’s culture impacts drunk driving: nearly two out of three people in the state are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which prohibits its members from consuming alcohol.
Nationwide, driving under the influence of drugs such as marijuana and opiates is also a growing issue. In 2020, 56 percent of drivers involved in severe injury or fatal crashes tested positive for at least one drug, according to the NHTSA.
Where Have Drunk Driving Related Crashes Increased?
Between 2020 and 2021, there was a significant increase in the number of drivers with BAC .08+ involved in fatal crashes. Unfortunately, several states had substantial jumps. Alaska saw a 100% increase, while the District of Columbia, Idaho, Massachusetts, and Delaware all recorded increases above 50%. Some states, such as Maine, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and West Virginia, showed a decrease in the number of drivers with BAC .08+, indicating potential progress in reducing alcohol-related fatalities.
Even without alcohol involvement, Alaska has some of the most dangerous roads in the nation. This is likely a factor in its increasing rate of drunk-driving-related fatalities. As part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Alaska will receive more than $2.6 million in funding to help reduce traffic-related deaths, but more action will be needed to curb drunk driving in the northernmost state.
In Idaho, DUI-related traffic deaths increased from 52 in 2020 to 85 in 2021. This is a significant 63% rise in deadly accidents involving legally drunk drivers. Leaders from the state capital in Boise report that fatal crashes increase further between June and August, which they call the “100 deadliest days.” During this time, local leaders run public awareness campaigns to curb distracted and intoxicated driving. Future data will show whether or not these campaigns will influence public behavior.
Who Is Most Likely to Drive Drunk?
Since 2015, the percentage of Americans who admitted to recent drunk driving has increased. Last year alone, about 20 percent of drivers reported driving drunk at least once, and 10 percent said they did it often. While the practice, unfortunately, is widespread, some drivers are more likely to drive under the influence.
Young drivers are likelier than their older counterparts to drive while intoxicated. More than a quarter of fatal-crash drivers between the ages of 21 and 34 had been over the legal alcohol limit. Younger drivers may be more likely to be involved in drunk driving wrecks because they may be more prone to exaggerate their ability to drive safely under the influence. They’re also more likely to drink alcohol in general and more likely to face peer pressure. In other words, if their friends drink and drive, they are more likely to do the same.
Men are also more likely to be involved in traffic crashes due to drunk driving compared to women. According to the latest statistics from the NHTSA, about 4 male alcohol-impaired drivers were involved in crashes for every female alcohol-impaired driver in 2021.
When Are Drunk Driving Deaths Most Common?
Driving drunk or high is prevalent and risky when it’s dark out. The chances of a fatal accident involving alcohol almost triple at night compared to the daytime and increase greatly during the weekends. This is often when people go out to bars, restaurants, or clubs serving alcohol.
There are several reasons why more drunk driving deaths occur at night. Firstly, there are simply more drunk drivers on the road at night. People are more likely to drink alcohol in the evening than in the day. Additionally, visibility is reduced at night. This makes it more difficult for drivers to see other cars and hazards on the road. Drivers are also more likely to feel sleepy at night, leading to slower reaction times and poor decision-making.
How Often Are People Arrested for DUI?
Of course, the most tragic result of drinking and driving is the loss of human life, but DUIs can create the risk of legal implications. Police arrested more than 443,000 people on suspicion of DUI in 2021, the most recent year for available FBI data. The number could be far higher since large states like Florida did not contribute to the latest FBI reporting.
Only simple assault and drug-related charges were more common crimes than DUI in 2021. Still, the 2021 DUI arrest figure represents a massive decline from the nearly 1 million people arrested in 2014.
Nationally, DUI accounts for about one in 10 arrests, which is much higher in some states. In Pennsylvania, about 25 percent of all arrests in 2021 were for drunk or intoxicated driving.
Percentage of all arrests due to DUI by state, 2021
Source: Arrests in The United States by Offense, 2021 Uniform Crime Reporting Program Note: Florida submitted incomplete data
In 1910, New York was the first state to prohibit driving while intoxicated, although the law did not clearly define drunken driving. However, it was not until the 1970s that states and the federal government made efforts to reduce drinking and driving by implementing laws that criminalized driving while intoxicated. In the past, even though driving under the influence was illegal in many places, prosecutors faced challenges in proving it in court. In other words, BAC was not the sole determining factor; the observable impairment level played a crucial role.
It is difficult to argue against the effectiveness of stricter laws in deterring individuals from driving after consuming drugs or alcohol, considering the consistent decline in DUIs and DUI-related traffic fatalities. However, due to the increased alcohol consumption during the Covid pandemic and beyond, we can only hope that these achievements will not be reversed.
We analyzed data from the 2021 NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts Report. This was the latest available year. Additional information came from the FBI’s 2021 Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the 2022 TIRF Road Safety Monitor.
Here is a full list of states’ drunk-driving fatality estimates from the 2021 and 2020 Traffic Safety Facts from the NHTSA (table 4).
Number of drivers involved in fatal crashes with BAC .08+ (2020)
Percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes with BAC .08+ (2020)
Number of drivers involved in fatal crashes with BAC .08+ (2021)
Percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes with BAC .08+ (2021)
Percent change in number of drivers with BAC .08+, 2020-2021