By: SafeHome.org Research | Updated December 21, 2022
Fatalities caused by driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs have steadily declined in the US for decades, yet the numbers remain unacceptably high. Over 10,000 Americans are killed by drunk drivers annually, with fatalities spiking around holidays. Additionally, hints of higher impairment rates during COVID-19 have compounded the threats on our roadways.
This is all despite widespread public understanding that driving under the influence is incredibly dangerous — a 2021 study revealed that 78 percent of Americans were very concerned about the danger of drunk driving, and 69 percent were very concerned about the danger of drug-impaired drivers.1
Still, drunk driving claims thousands of lives on the road and accounts for more arrests than murder, rape, aggravated assault and burglary combined according to the latest Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data. Additionally, 22.5 percent of drivers aged 21 or older admitted to driving while intoxicated at least once in 2021, with 12 percent reporting they do so often.2
There’s no doubt that driving under the influence is more common than it should be, but it’s also the case that certain areas of the country seem to have a bigger issue with intoxicated drivers than others. This is why we gathered data on national and state DUI trends as well as how DUI rates have changed since 2021.
Extensive efforts by activists, legislators, and advertisers, accompanied by the acceptance of designated drivers and ridesharing apps, have significantly decreased drunk driving deaths in recent years. Yet driving under the influence remains the second most common human factor in fatal car crashes.
|Top 5 Related Factors for Drivers Involved in Fatal Crashes (2019)|
|2.||Driving under the influence|
|3.||Failure to yield right of way|
|4.||Improper lane usage|
|Source: FARS Related Factors for Drivers Involved in Fatal Crashes, 2019|
Nationwide, legally intoxicated drivers caused 10,142 fatalities in 2019 (the most recent year with complete statistics), accounting for more than a quarter of roadway deaths.3
Connecting 28% of fatalities to legally intoxicated drivers represents an appreciable drop from 2010 when drunk drivers were responsible for 31% of auto fatalities and a sizable decrease from 1990 when impairment caused 40% of roadway deaths.4
Source: NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, Table 13
With comprehensive statistics covering only through 2019, there isn’t yet conclusive evidence demonstrating how DUI behavior has changed during the pandemic. Anecdotes and new, yet limited analysis are beginning to paint a picture.
With travel and commuting curtailed by COVID, the number of daily American auto trips in 2020 dropped by a third compared to 2019.5 But increased liquor sales and limited medical data suggest that a higher percentage of those who were on the road may have been impaired.6
Before the Covid-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in 2020, emergency medical technicians and medical examiners found that 19 percent of drivers they tested had BACs over the legal limit. By the summer of 2021, 26 percent of drivers tested had BACs of .08 or higher.7
Source: USDOT Behavioral Research: Update to Special Reports on Traffic Safety During COVID-19
Since this data was collected from injured or deceased drivers in five separate east coast cities, it is limited, but it revealed a significant increase in legally drunk drivers involved in crashes during the first seven months of the pandemic.
Additionally, since the pandemic’s start in early 2020, more drivers have admitted to driving drunk, and doing it often.
Source: TIRF USA Road Safety Monitor 2021
Overall, 19 percent of drivers involved in fatal accidents were legally drunk in 2019 – down from 22 percent in 2010.8 The individual likelihood of intoxication varied significantly depending on drivers’ age and gender, as well as when they were driving.
Young adults represented the most dangerous age group for drunk driving. Motorists involved in fatal accidents between the ages of 21-24 were legally impaired 1.5 times more often than the national average in 2019.9 That percentage gradually tails off as age (and perhaps wisdom) increases.
Source: NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, 2010, 2019 (Table 78)
That same relative distribution was observed in 2010, though it’s noteworthy that fatal drunk driver percentages increased slightly among those under 16 and over 55 during the decade, defying overall trends.
Male motorists involved in deadly crashes were 1.5 times more likely to be legally drunk than female motorists.
|Percentage of Drivers in Fatal Crashes Who Were Legally Intoxicated, By Gender|
|Source: NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts 2019|
Because male drivers are involved in more collisions overall, this difference meant that 4 out of 5 impaired drivers in deadly accidents in 2019 were men.10
The likelihood of encountering a drunk driver can vary greatly depending upon when one is on the roads. A fatal accident at night is three times more likely to be caused by an impaired motorist than a daytime accident.
|Percentage of Drivers Involved Fatal Accidents Who Were Legally Intoxicated (By Time of Day, 2019)|
(6 am – 5:59 pm)
(6 pm – 5:59 am)
|Source: NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts 2019 (Table 15)|
The chance that a deadly crash involves intoxicated drivers also doubles around most major holidays compared to other days.11
In addition to causing great bodily harm, impaired drivers risk criminal penalties. A primary component of the nation’s DUI crackdown has been tougher laws accompanied by stricter enforcement, resulting in over 1 million drunk driving arrests in 2019.12
As anti-DUI policies have driven down violations and fatalities, arrests have also declined. DUI arrests dropped 31 percent between 2010 and 2019, but still represent 10 percent of nationwide arrests – twice the number made for all violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) combined.13
DUI arrests reflect demographic distributions similar to drivers involved in fatal crashes. Approximately 81 percent of people arrested for DUIs in 2019 were male and 19 percent were female.14
Source: 2019 FBI Uniform Crime Report, Table 38
Likewise, young adults are most frequently arrested, with drivers aged 21-29 made up 33 percent of all DUI arrests in 2019.
Nationally, the DUI arrest rate was 287 per every 100,000 citizens in 2019, but that number varied greatly by state; from highs over 600 in Wyoming and the Dakotas to a low of 47 in Delaware.15
Almost every state reduced its DUI arrest rate from 2010 to 2019, but three states increased in that period. The most dramatic jumps were in Illinois and Delaware, where each nearly doubled arrests.
|State||DUI Arrests Per 100K
|DUI Arrests Per 100K
|% Change in Arrest Rate|
|Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report, 2010, 2019|
The percentage of drunk driving deaths likewise decreased within most states during the last decade.
Most notably, South Carolina and Delaware had the largest decreases in the percentage of traffic deaths involving drivers with BAC over .08, though a handful of states (Oregon, Iowa, Maine, Alaska, and New Hampshire) saw their numbers jump by 5 points or more.
|State||Percentage of people killed in crashes involving driver with BAC .08 or more (2010)||Percentage of people killed in crashes involving driver with BAC .08 or more (2019)||Percentage Point Change in Rate of DUI-related Fatalities|
|District of Columbia||27%||26%||↓||1|
|Source: NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, 2010, 2019 (Table 117)|
The states with the highest percentage of fatalities attributable to impaired driving were Rhode Island, North Dakota, and New Hampshire, while the lowest were Utah and Vermont.
Rampant drunk driving was first targeted by American legislators and law enforcement agencies in the 1980s, spurring a nationwide decline in fatalities and accidents that has continued through 2019.
Certain states, demographics, and public celebrations have proven resistant to DUI reforms, but recent events may provide even more formidable challenges. Traffic loads and consumption habits altered by the pandemic threaten to increase the proportion of impaired drivers for the first time in years.
Further study and time are required to assess the depth of these new dangers, but let’s hope the trend towards greater safety continues.