The Deadliest Drunk-Driving States

A doctor-led group ranks the states with the highest and lowest rates of drunk-driving fatalities

The holiday season brings with it not just joy, but a spike in drunk driving. That's particularly scary if you live in one of the 15 states (including the District of Columbia) in which 41% or more of all traffic fatalities are alcohol-related. Even worse, according to the doctor-led advocacy group End Needless Deaths on Our Roadways (END), is that 10 of the so-called Fatal 15 states have made the list for three years in a row.

Chicago-based END, in announcing its annual ranking of alcohol-related fatalities on Nov. 30, said that nearly 17,000 motorists were killed nationwide last year in such traffic accidents, and 4,300 of those deaths were in the fatal 15 states. Topping the list is Washington, D.C., where drunk driving was implicated in 54.17% of all traffic fatalities, followed by Hawaii with 50.71%. The rankings are based on data drawn from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's reporting system.

Repeat Offenders

The 10 repeats in the top 15 are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. The other five at the top are Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, North Dakota, and Washington.

Progress in eliminating drunk driving and related fatalities has been difficult in recent years. In 1982 the number of people killed in car crashes was 43,945, and 60% of those, or 26,173, lost their lives in accidents in which at least one of the drivers was impaired by alcohol, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The number and rate of alcohol-related fatalities declined steadily until 1997, when 16,711 people died in drunk-driving accidents, or 40% of all auto accident fatalities.

However, since then, the rate has hovered right around 40%, despite the efforts of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and even responsible-drinking campaigns from alcohol purveyors like Anheuser-Busch (BUD), Diageo (DEO), Brown-Foreman (BFB), and Constellation Brands (STZ). Last year, 38.87% of traffic fatalities nationwide were caused by drunk driving, compared with 39.15% in 2004.

An Ounce of Prevention

Dr. Thomas Esposito, co-chairperson of END, recommended that doctors and other health-care workers take a larger role in identifying patients with alcohol abuse problems, then intervening before they get behind the wheel of car. The screening process recommended by the group involves asking patients a few questions about drinking habits and consumption, and counseling those who respond positively to one or more of the questions. He said studies have determined that 5- to 15-minute counseling sessions have proven effective in decreasing consumption among at-risk drinkers.

The group also recommends that states consider increasing the penalty for motorists who refuse to submit to a sobriety test; raising fines for first-time and repeat offenders; and long prison sentences for those convicted of drunk driving and vehicle forfeiture.

The state with the lowest alcohol-related fatality rate proves the advantages of beefing up legal oversight of drinking. In Utah, where the drinking laws are the strictest in the nation (it is illegal to get drunk "to a degree that the person may endanger himself or another" in Utah), only 13.12% of fatal car accidents involved alcohol last year. That's half the rate of the next lowest state, Iowa, at 26.22%.

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