Magnitude Of The Problem

More than 2 million people are arrested each year for drunk driving. The actual number of offenses, while unknown and unknowable, must be far greater, since only a fraction of all violators are apprehended. A few researchers have mounted roadside surveys in which drivers are stopped and asked to voluntarily provide a breath sample from which the amount of alcohol in the blood can be calculated. While this is the best strategy for determining the actual amount of drunk driving, there are many problems with this methodology (which roads? what times? how many refusals?). A 1985 Minnesota roadside survey found that of 838 drivers on the road between 8:00 P.M. and 3:00 A.M. (prime time for drunk driving), 82.3 percent tested negative for any alcohol, 6 percent tested at BLOOD

Alcohol Concentration (BAC) 0.05-0.09 percent (included as a lesser Driving While Intoxicated [DWI] offense in some states), and 2.4 percent tested above the drunk-driving threshold of BAC 0.1 percent.

Drunk drivers do not pose a uniform risk to themselves, their passengers, other motorists, and pedestrians. The most dangerous of the drunk drivers are the vehicular equivalent of the ''fighting drunk''; they drive far in excess of the speed limit, weave in and out of traffic, and cross into lanes of traffic going in the opposite direction. At the low end of the continuum are drunk drivers who make an impaired effort to drive safely; although operating with diminished skill and judgment, they pose less of a risk than the agressive drunk drivers.

The most impressive experimental study of the causal role of alcohol in traffic crashes was carried out during the 1960s by Professor Robert Borkenstein (inventor of the BREATHALYZER) and his University of Indiana colleagues. The researchers obtained breath samples from 6,000 accident-involved drivers and, as controls, from 7,500 non-accident-involved drivers. They found that 6.3 percent of the accident-involved drivers, but fewer than 1 percent of the control drivers, had BACs equal to or greater than 0.1 percent (the prevailing definition of drunk driving in the 1980s). Moreover, each higher BAC level included a disproportionate number from the accident-involved group. Thus Borkenstein and his colleagues concluded that ''BACs above .04% are definitely associated with an increased accident rate. The probability of accident-involvement increases rapidly at BACs above .15%. When drivers with BACs over 0.08% have accidents, they disproportionately involve only the driver's vehicle, and are more costly in terms of personal injury and property damage.''

While most drunk-driving episodes do not result in a crash or injuries, the aggregate personal and property damage perpetrated by drunk drivers is staggering. A good deal of methodological controversy exists about the percentage of the approximately 45,000 annual traffic fatalities in the United States that can be attributed to drunk drivers. NHTSA's Fatal Accident Reporting System, which has been operating since the mid-1970s, presents important information about alcohol and traffic fatalities but does not attempt to estimate what proportion of all traffic deaths were caused by drunken driving. James Fell and Terry Klein, using statistical modeling techniques, have estimated that approximately 30 percent of all traffic fatalities can be attributed to drunk driving; other analyses have put this estimate at 50 percent.

Drunk drivers themselves, often in single-car collisions, comprise a large proportion of those who are killed, giving fatal drunk-driving episodes as much resemblance to suicide as to homicide. Nevertheless, each year thousands of innocent pedestrians and motorists are killed by drunk drivers, and tens of thousands are badly injured. There is also a huge amount of property damage.

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