Is the USA Doing Enough to Prevent Drunk Driving?

Alcohol-impaired Driving Fatalities in the USA

According to the ‘Road Safety Annual Report 2019 – USA’,  there were 10,874 fatalities in “alcohol-impaired driving crashes.”

Don't drink and drive.
A drunk driver’s potential view of a highway… and your family might be in his or her path. (Copyright image, 2014.)

An alcohol-impaired driving fatality is “defined as a fatality in a crash involving a driver or a motorcycle rider (operator) with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.8g/l [0.08%] or greater.

This was just over 29 percent of all road deaths in the USA and 30 such deaths every day in 2017 (the latest available figures).

A drink-driving (not DRUNK-driving) commercial, from South Australia.

So how does America’s performance in relation to alcohol and driving compare to the situation in other countries?

One difference that may seem irrelevant but isn’t, is that in other English-speaking nations there is a tendency to refer to the problem as drink driving, rather than drunk driving.  See the caption on the photo from South Australia, above.

The reason for this is that the effects of alcohol are a continuous process, and start to affect a person shortly after the first mouthful is swallowed.  It is not necessary for some people to even reach the blood-alcohol limit before they have been affected enough for their driving to be less accurate than normal.

Likewise, it is certainly not necessary for a person to feel drunk, or even affected, for their driving to be sufficiently impaired for a tangible increase in risk when they drive.  So this is why several countries highlight this issue by referring to ‘drink driving’ rather than ‘drunk driving’.

In addition, the vast majority of wealthy nations have now come into compliance with advice given in 1992 by the World Medical Association [WMA] that no country should have a BAC limit greater than 0.05 percent.

All American states, with the exception of Utah, still have a limit of 0.08% so we can only hope that 0.05 becomes the U.S. norm quickly and effectively.

The problem with this is that the alcohol industry here in America will no doubt fight this perceived intrusion on their profits tooth-and-nail, just as the major cellphone corporations have helped promote no-texting-and-driving as a way of diverting attention away from their more profitable yet still dangerous area of people making phone calls while driving.

In this context, you might wish to consider the fact that the stated aim of includes “lead[ing] the fight against drunk driving,” sadly NOT against drinking and driving.

The only truly good advice — and from a beer maker: When you drive, never drink!

Does that matter?  Well in countries that are truly serious about defeating the effects of alcohol on drivers, yes… it is held to matter greatly.

To obtain a baseline for performance comparisons, we have looked at the proportions of people killed in line with America’s definition of an alcohol-impaired driving fatality, above.

The countries we have listed below are those leading the world in reducing deaths in any of the three metrics used for this purpose.  (You can see those three criteria under the subheading ‘Overview of Road Fatality Trends, 2010-17’, here.

To this group, we have also added Germany and Australia because we saw their results by chance and were thoroughly impressed:

  • Sweden — 23% of total deaths (2)
  • Norway — 15% of total deaths  (3?)
  • UK ———- 14% of total deaths (1)
  • Switzerland — 13% —“— —“—  (1)
  • Denmark ——- 11% —“— —“—(4)

It may be seen that Denmark, the home of Heineken (see image, above), Switzerland, and the UK, home of pub culture, all have alcohol-related fatality rates less than half of that in the USA.

But wait!

  • Australia — admittedly still around 20% of total deaths but down from a stunning, prior rate of 50%!


  • Germany — a ‘mere’ 7.3%, compared to the above… outstanding! (2?)
  1. Percentage relates specifically to alcohol-impaired drivers;
  2. Percentage also includes deaths where pedestrians, etc., were the individuals who were alcohol-impaired;
  3. Unknown regarding 1 or 2.
  4. Percentage relates to injury crashes rather than fatalities so an even better result than the percentage suggests.

So the rhetorical question is this:  Have US researchers studied the much greater success in these countries — particularly Denmark and Germany, both of which also have a BAC limit of 0.05%, — and sought to apply anything learned to help America improve its currently catastrophic loss of more than 10,800 lives a year to this scourge?

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