Driving Under the Influence: Do Strict DUI Laws Really Work?

alcohol and car keys 

Year after year, statistics confirm one of the most dangerous things a driver can do is get behind the wheel drunk. This is no surprise to anyone. After all, the more intoxicated a driver is, the less he or she is able to drive safely. 

The real question is whether or not today’s stricter DUI laws are making a difference in keeping impaired drivers off the road.

In this post, we’re going to explore the effects that strict DUI laws have on alcohol-related crash fatality rates. There’s no doubt that major changes in policy, like the establishment of 0.08% as the legal limit for driving, has been responsible for preventing many deaths when combined with more effective law enforcement. However, a comparison of recent studies identifying which states have the strictest DUI policies and which states have the highest alcohol-related fatality rates, can give us a better idea of the degree to which establishing stricter policies can actually prevent drunk-driving deaths.

What Alcohol-Related Traffic Fatality Statistics Tell Us

The numbers aren’t great, but compared with 30 years ago we’re seeing progress. Deaths from drunk driving in 2018 were less than half the number of deaths in 1988, 10,511 to 27,253 respectively. Since Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began their campaign against drunk driving in the early 1980s, supporting efforts to increase the legal drinking age and lower the BAC limit, the roads have become vastly safer for everyone.

In fact, while an incredible 58% of the 42,589 people who died in a collision in 1983 were killed in an alcohol-related collision. In 2018, only 29% of traffic fatalities were related to alcohol. This suggests that, while other factors (like new traffic laws and safety technologies) may have kept fatality rates from rising significantly as the roads have become more crowded, the major reduction in traffic fatalities over the past 30 years can be attributed in part to the drastic drop in deaths related to drunk driving.

Nevertheless, there are still far too many people dying each year because intoxicated drivers get behind the wheel. In recent years we’ve seen the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities remain stagnant at about 10,000 deaths a year. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) data revealed that more than 10.1 million people drove while impaired at least once in 2014.. 

The prevalence of impaired driving suggests there is still a lot of progress to be made, despite the encouraging fatality rate. 

Strict DUI Laws: What the Research Shows

Recently, the personal finance website WalletHub released a study identifying the relative strictness of each state’s DUI policies. To arrive at these rankings, the researchers examined 15 different factors for each state, including: 

  • The minimum jail time and fine associated with the offense.

  • The presence of administrative license suspension and mandatory ignition interlock policies.

  • Whether there were any additional penalties for more severe offenses. 

They found that Arizona, Georgia and Alaska had the strictest policies and that Ohio, South Dakota and Washington, D.C. had the most lenient policies.

At the same time, a report on fatal alcohol-related crash rate in each state between 1995 and 2013, as well as 2018 NHTSA collision data and the latest DUI data from Insurify, shows us which states have the highest drunk driving rates and DUI deaths. Because state populations can vary widely, this data measures the alcohol-related fatality rate and charges relative to each state’s population. These results indicate that some of the most dangerous states are South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Mississippi.

One thing you may notice right away is that South Dakota has some of the least strict DUI laws, as well as the single highest fatality rate for the period 1995-2013. In at least one state it would seem that high fatality rates are associated with lenient laws. But looking closer at the data gives us a more complicated picture:

  • South Dakota has very lenient laws and one of the highest fatality rates. South Dakota’s DUI penalties include no minimum jail time or fine for a first or second offense, no administrative license suspension and no ignition interlock requirement. It had the number one fatality rate for 1995-2013 (22.4 fatalities for every 100,000 residents) and the sixth highest alcohol-related traffic death rate for 2020 (35.2%).

  • High fatality rates were associated with lenient laws in several other states. Montana, which also had a low DUI strictness rating (#40 of 51), had the second highest alcohol-related traffic fatality rate for 2020 and the number 5 fatality rate for 1995-2013 (16.85 per 100,000 residents); Montana is one of only a few states to lack an administrative license suspension law. Other states with low DUI strictness and high fatality rates include North Dakota, Kentucky, Wyoming and Mississippi.

  • While Arizona has the strictest DUI policies, its fatality rate is about average. The state with the strictest DUI laws, Arizona, had a fairly average DUI fatality rate in 2018 of 28%. Alaska and Georgia, the states with the next strictest policies, had higher and lower fatality rates respectively.

  • Kansas has the fourth most strict DUI laws, as well as one of the lowest DUI fatality rates of just 22% for 2018.  

  • In the biggest states, stricter laws don’t correlate with fewer deaths. The four most populous states in the country are California, Texas, Florida and New York. In California, DUI policies were slightly more strict than average (#21 in the rankings), and the DUI fatality rate in 2018 was relatively average (30%). In Texas and Florida, DUI policies are slightly more strict than average (#13 and #17, respectively), while the DUI fatality rate in 2018 was well average in Texas (40%) and somewhat low in Florida (26%). New York has slightly more lenient laws (#29 in the rankings) and the alcohol-related traffic death rate is on the higher side at 33%. 

  • In states with low fatality rates, laws range from very strict to very lenient. The five states with the lowest DUI fatality rates in 2018 ranged in DUI strictness from #4 (Kansas/Oklahoma tied) to #45 (New Jersey). These states differ in many ways, including whether there is a minimum sentence or fine for a first DUI conviction, whether an administrative license suspension law is in effect, and what the ignition interlock requirements are. The only element all states have in common is the use of additional penalties for DUI Child Endangerment.

  • In states with high fatality rates, laws range from very strict to very lenient, too. The five states with the highest DUI fatality rates in 2018 ranged in DUI strictness from #3 (Alaska) to #51 (South Dakota). Like the other end of the list, there is no consistency in the factors associated with a high fatality rate.

These facts suggest that, while lenient DUI laws do seem to be associated with higher fatality rates in some states, for the most part, there is no consistent relationship between these two measures. 

Population Density Matters Even More Than DUI Laws

However, one factor that does seem to have an impact is population density (number of people per square mile). These findings line up neatly with what we know about differences in urban and rural driving. 

According to the NHTSA, even though “an estimated 19 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas” in 2013, “rural fatalities accounted for 54 percent of all traffic fatalities” that year. It would seem that in places with more dense urban areas, where there are more regions with low-speed limits, heavily-regulated driving environments and more immediate access to medical care, people are less likely to die in drunk driving crashes. 

In places that are primarily rural with more empty, undivided roads the mix of high speeds and alcohol is particularly deadly.

Making Sense of These DUI Law Results

It appears strict state DUI laws are not reliably associated with lower fatal DUI crash rates. Indeed, according to one study, a state’s decision to establish new DUI laws isn’t related to the number of deaths drunk driving is associated with or even the political leanings of the state’s government. Rather, the factors most likely to lead a state to adopt new DUI policies were large populations of young people and neighboring states with similar driving laws.

But if making laws stricter doesn’t work, what can states do to reduce their fatal alcohol-related crash rates? The answer, it turns out, may lie more in how the laws are enforced than what the laws are. 

According to Professor Adam Gerschowitz, the three factors most likely to deter a behavior like impaired driving are: 

  1. the certainty that the person will be caught and punished
  2. the speed between the time they commit the crime and the time of punishment
  3. the severity (harshness) of the punishment

But Gerschowitz adds, “a large number of social science studies have found that the harshness or severity of the punishment is the least effective deterrent… As such, states should adopt [DUI] policies that are more likely to result in drunk drivers being caught and convicted, not policies that simply punish drunk drivers harshly.”

One of MADD’s great successes wasn’t simply convincing the government to change the law, but convincing the public at large that drunk driving was so dangerous that it should be considered criminal. When police more aggressively pursue drunk drivers and more drunk driving arrests are made, the most dangerous offenders are taken off the road while other drivers have a greater incentive to avoid getting behind the wheel intoxicated.

Effective Ways to Deter Drunk Driving

One thing states can do is pursue public awareness campaigns to further shift attitudes against drunk driving and to invest more in making sure existing DUI laws are enforced. Another thing to consider is increasing the price of alcohol with a tax. The higher price of alcohol will discourage excessive drinking, and the funds collected through the tax can be used to fund the increase in law enforcement.

Of course, this isn’t to say that state governments shouldn’t pursue new DUI laws, such as lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.05% or requiring all first time DUI offenders to install an ignition interlock device, as such policies can play some role in lowering DUI fatality rates. However, by now it should be clear that simply adopting new policies isn’t enough, as the existing culture in a state as well as the state’s geography, can influence how it is affected by drunk driving.

Thus, it’s crucial that governments pursue sincere and comprehensive campaigns against drunk driving, targeting public attitudes, improving law enforcement, making punishment quicker and more predictable and making alcohol costlier to obtain. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of each state to understand and then craft a holistic response that’s appropriate for the alcohol use and drunk driving within it.

Remember, no matter where you live, it’s your responsibility as a driver to never get behind the wheel when you’ve been drinking. Our findings suggest it’s a good idea to be especially cautious on open, rural roads where high speeds are common, medical care is farther away and collisions are more likely to be fatal. 

By driving sober, you make the roads safer for yourself and everyone else. You also make yourself more capable of driving defensively and keeping yourself safe if you encounter another driver who is impaired.

*This article was updated on 10/6/2020

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