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Fatal Crashes Down: Progress Continues

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports the positive news that fewer deaths occurred on our nation's roads in 2011 (NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2012a, 2012b).  A lower, but still depressingly high 32,367 people were killed in crashes in 2011.  That’s a 1.9% decrease from 2010, and represents the fewest fatalities since 1949.  When controlling for population growth and increased vehicle miles driven, the fatality rate is about a third what it was back in the early 1980s.

Drunk driving (or more precisely driving with a BAC=.08+) continues to account for a large proportion of the fatal crashes.  But those too declined by 2.5% and now account for 31% of the deaths.

Here are a few important national statics from the report:


  1. Of the 8,119 crashes involving a driver with BAC=.08+, 82% of the deaths occurred in the impaired driver’s vehicle. 
  2. 68% of the 9,878 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities were from crashes that had at least one driver with a BAC=.15+.
  3. The 21-24 age group was most at risk for being involved in an impaired driving fatal crash (32%).  That number has barely changed since 2002.
  4. Motorcycle deaths continue to rise (2.1%, with 4,612 deaths).  Almost a third (29%) involved a BAC=.08+ rider.
  5. Most of the change in the overall fatality rate (80%) can be accounted for by a large decline in female deaths.  No hypothesis is given why men’s deaths did not decline as much.
  6. Distraction-affected crashes went up 1.9% to 3,331 fatalities.

Given our population size, it is not surprising that California ranks second among the 50 states in the number of impaired driving fatalities.  But when looking at the proportion of fatal crashes that involve a BAC=.08+ driver, we are below the average for the nation (28% vs 31%).

So this means… policies such as primary seat-belt (Lange & Voas, 1998), zero-tolerance (Fell, Fisher, Voas, Blackman, & Tippetts, 2009), age-21 minimum drinking age (Toomey & Wagenaar, 2002), and BAC=.08 per se laws (Fell & Voas, 2006), have helped bring the rate down. But even as the trend continues downward drunk driving has, and likely will continue to be a substantial threat to us all (Lange, 2008).  For those in the typical college age, it remains a leading cause of death (Hingson, 2010) and needs to be a major focus of our prevention efforts.

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Fell, J. C., Fisher, D. A., Voas, R. B., Blackman, K., & Tippetts, A. S. (2009). The impact of underage drinking laws on alcohol-related fatal crashes of young drivers. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 33(7), 1208–1219.

Fell, J. C., & Voas, R. B. (2006). The effectiveness of reducing illegal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits for driving: Evidence for lowering the limit to .05 BAC. Journal of Safety Research, 37(3), 233–243.

Hingson, R. W. (2010). Magnitude and prevention of college drinking and related problems. Alcohol Research & Health, 33(1-2), 45–54.

Lange, J. E., & Voas, R. B. (1998). Nighttime observations of safety belt use: An evaluation of California’s primary law. American Journal of Public Health, 88(11), 1718–1720.

Lange, J. E. (2008). Drunk Driving. In V. Parillo (ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Problems. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2012a). 2011 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview (No. DOT HS 811 701) (p. 5). Washington, D.C.: NHTSA. Retrieved from

NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2012b). Alcohol-Impaired Driving (No. DOT HS 811 700) (p. 6). Washington, D.C.: NHTSA. Retrieved from

Toomey, T. L., & Wagenaar, A. C. (2002). Environmental policies to reduce college drinking: Options and research findings. Journal of studies on alcohol. Supplement, (14), 193 – 205.