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

Drunk driving is illegal in every state, yet in the United States, someone dies from a drunk driving collision every 52 minutes. The tragic loss of life is impossible to quantify, but it’s estimated that the cost of alcohol-related crashes is over $100 billion annually

Thanks to campaigns from advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), drunk driving deaths are down 50% since 1980, proving stricter laws and advocacy have worked to reduce the number of drunk driving deaths. However, MADD’s goal isn’t just to have fewer deaths caused by drunk or drugged drivers; it’s to have zero. 

MADD’s Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving

MADD’s “No More Victims” campaign is a combination of prevention and invention. They’ve created a roadmap to go from 10,000+ drunk driving deaths per year to zero.

MADD’s strategy to eliminate drunk driving:

  1. Short-term high-visibility enforcement. Short-term high-visibility enforcement amounts to an increased number of officers patrolling a certain area and enforcing sobriety checkpoints. A sobriety checkpoint is a way for law enforcement to evaluate drivers for signs of impairment at specific checkpoints along a roadway. Vehicles are stopped randomly and drivers suspected of impairment are given a breathalyzer. The checkpoints are well publicized ahead of time, reminding drivers not to drink and drive. Thirty-eight states currently authorize the use of publicized sobriety checkpoints. 

  2. Ignition interlock devices. According to MADD, “the average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before a first arrest, and on any given day, your family shares the roadways with more than 2 million drunk drivers who have had three or more prior convictions.” An ignition interlock device would require a convicted drunk driver to blow into a device in order for the vehicle to start. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has shown that repeat offenses have been reduced by 70% thanks to interlock devices, which translates to thousands of lives saved. Yet only 34 states, plus Washington D.C., have required convicted drunk drivers to install these devices. The result is that only about one-fifth of people who are arrested for DUI actually have an interlock device installed in their vehicle.  

  3. Autonomous vehicle technology. Eliminating the human driver would also eliminate the human tragedy of impaired driving. MADD is advocating for federal (not state) regulation of self-driving vehicles to ensure the technology is safe.

  4. Advanced drunk driving prevention technology. Techonology that monitors blood alcohol levels through the touch of a driver’s fingertip or air exhaled in the car is being developed and has the potential to eliminate drunk driving in the future. 

Implied Consent

Although the law varies a bit by state, the spirit of the implied consent law is the same across the country. Simply by getting behind the wheel of a car, you automatically consent to allow law enforcement officers to test your blood, breath, or urine for drugs and alcohol. Depending on the state, refusing to take a breathalyzer or other BAC test could get you as little as a suspended driver's license or as much as a year in jail.

According to a literature review published in the Journal of Safety Research, “A substantial proportion of drivers arrested for DUI refuse the BAC test, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will be convicted and potentially increasing the number of high-risk multiple offenders contributing to alcohol-related crashes...there is strong evidence that BAC test refusals significantly compromise the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of DUI suspects and the overall enforcement of DUI laws in the United States.”

MADD advocates for increased penalties for refusing a breathalyzer. 

Check out the states with the toughest DUI laws.

Starting Young: Preventing Underage Impaired Driving

MADD cites the following sobering statistics about teens and alcohol:

  • Kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash.

  • Teen alcohol use kills 4,300 people each year.

  • The younger a teen starts drinking, the more likely they are to become alcohol dependent at some point in their life.

  • More than 40% of people who start drinking before the age of 13 will develop alcohol abuse or dependence at some point in their lives.

  • Of the 14 million people who are alcohol dependent, 95% began drinking before age 21.

  • The brain does not stop developing until a person’s early to mid-20s. Drinking alcohol while the brain is still developing can lead to problems with learning and memory, accidents, injury, suicide, and death. 

Parents have a bigger role to play in teen alcohol and substance use than they may think. Despite how it may appear, teens are listening to their parents. 

According to the CDC, teens are killed in car crashes more than any other demographic, and teens who have been drinking have a much higher risk of being in a crash than older drivers with the same BAC level. Parents need to engage their teens in an ongoing conversation about drinking and drug use. 

Teens must understand that driving while under the influence of alcohol or any controlled substance (including prescription or over-the-counter medication) is illegal and increases their odds of being in an accident. Many teens have received the message that alcohol and driving don’t mix, but are not aware that marijuana also impairs their driving significantly. 

Research fom a January 2022 Colorado Division of Criminal Justice report analyzing more than 26,000 impaired driving cases that were filed in Colorado in 2019 shows that combining cannabis and alcohol increases the risk of being involved in a car crash:

“45% of drivers tested positive for multiple substances. The most common combination of drugs detected was alcohol and Delta 9-THC, which is the primary psychoactive component of cannabis and may indicate recent use…the risk of being involved in a crash increases dramatically depending on the type and number of impairing substances in the driver’s body.” 

The bottom line: Teens (and drivers of any age) should have no amount of alcohol or drugs in their system when they drive.  

What Can You Do to Eliminate Drunk and Impaired Driving Deaths?

As a driver, you have a responsibility to choose to drive sober each time you get behind the wheel. If you plan to go somewhere where you’ll be drinking, plan ahead for a designated driver, a rideshare, taxi or public transportation. If you are a parent of a teen, talk to them about the dangers of underage drinking and driving while impaired. Let them know it’s okay to call you instead of getting in a car with someone who’s been drinking or if they’ve been drinking or using drugs. 

Impaired driving deaths are completely preventable. No one should have to experience the tragedy of losing a loved one in a senseless drunk or drugged driving accident. Together we can make the choice to be safe and keep others safe on the road.   

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DriversEd.Com Staff Writers

*This article was updated on 07/13/22