In anticipation of our podcast episode on road-related law, we take a look at the latest dangerous-driving statistics.
To start with, however, here’s a little background history of speeding and drunk driving — the two most common causes of road fatalities.
The first state to adopt laws against drunk driving was New York in 1910, followed quickly by California and a few others. But not until serious pressure from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (aptly called MADD) in the late 1970s, were these non-specific laws and penalties greatly enhanced. Most significantly, while the U.S. does not impose “zero tolerance” across the board (like many parts of mainland Europe and Scandinavia), zero tolerance laws were enacted for drivers under 21 – the legal drinking age.
As for a national speed limit, no federal law existed until 1974 when the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act prohibited speed above 55mph. (Interestingly, this law was less about public safety than it was about conserving gas during the 1973 oil crisis.) As a result, the law was widely disregarded, and eventually repealed in 1995, restoring full authority to each state.
That said, the lower speed limit did save lives: 4000 in 1974 alone relative to 1973. Further analysis suggested that the increase from 55mph to 65mph on rural roads led to a 30 per cent increase in deaths, while the full repeal in 1995 led to further 15 percent increase.
But although there were a full 10.2 million accidents in 2010, the resulting fatalities were the lowest since records began — 33,808 — even as registered drivers and miles covered continues to rise. From 2009 to 2010, over 1000 deaths were avoided, and since 2005 there has been a 25 percent decrease.
Still, of the 33,808 fatalities in the last year, 32 percent were caused by alcohol-impaired collisions (roughly the same as those caused by speeding – remembering, of course, that most drunk drivers are also speeders). That is equal to one person killed every 50 minutes by a drunk driver. Furthermore, young people under the age of 21 (for whom there is still a zero tolerance policy), are still involved in 13 percent of alcohol related deaths.
Attempts to lower the drinking age, which would arguably increase the rate of drunk-driving among under 21s and resulting road deaths, is already disincentivized by the federal government, who in turn would withdraw their spending from state highways and roads.
Sure, this somewhat controls the unruly youth. But what about incorrigible adults? As it stands, there is no nationwide DUI database. Such an omission allows drivers like Robert Hood, already facing three DUI charges in three different states, to move to Nebraska and upon his arrest under suspicion of drink driving, to be released on a $200 bond since the infraction was viewed as a first offense. Surely keeping repeat offenders off the road would be a good start.
Clearly there is still very much of a problem here in America. In the U.K., by comparison, drunk driving deaths were only 12 percent of all road fatalities; In California alone, traffic deaths related to alcohol or drugs reach 22 percent. And what is most puzzling in this comparison is that alcohol consumption per capita is higher in the U.K. and the legal drinking age lower. Go figure.
- Info-graphic of alcohol-related fatalities by state (saferautomobiles.com)
- A nationwide DUI database could reduce repeat offenders (drinkingproblem.com)
- 2008 census statistics on driving offences (census.gov)
- National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (nhtsa.gov)
- Marion Malley Walsh Drunk Driving Act, 1995 (thomas.loc.gov)
- Current bills before Congress (thomas.loc.gov)