If It Bleeds, It Leads:

A USA Today headline: "Drunken driving deaths up in 22 states."

The story below the headline:

Drunken driving fatalities increased in 22 states in 2006 and fell in 28 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, federal transportation officials said Monday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released data showing there were 13,470 deaths in 2006 involving drivers and motorcycle operators with blood alcohol levels of .08 or higher, which is the legal limit for adults throughout the country. The number was down slightly from 2005, when 13,582 people died in crashes involving legally drunk drivers.

So the number is virtually identical to what it was last year (the difference is less than 1%). It's a tiny bit lower. But the headline stresses the bad news, of course.

Thanks to Radley Balko's The Agitator and InstaPundit for the pointer. Note, though, that they also don't seem quite on target in saying (or quoting),

Incidentally, if you adjust for only those accidents where a clearly drunk driver caused the death of someone else, the real number has traditionally been about a fourth of what NHTSA reports. So figure the real number of drunk driving deaths to be around 3,000.

I agree that killings of innocent bystanders are morally different than self-inflicted deaths of those who are themselves drunk. But deaths are generally still tragic (even if somewhat less tragic or differently tragic). And in any event, they surely are "real" "drunk driving deaths."

UPDATE: Glen Whitman (Agoraphilia) points out flaws with the study's statistics, most significantly that (1) "all statistics of this nature are based on the underlying assumption that alcohol was the cause of every accident in which one of the drivers had alcohol in his system --- whether or not that driver was deemed at fault," and that (2) the government is stressing a tiny increase in the number of fatalities in which any driver had alcohol, even though the rate of such fatalities per capita (the more meaningful number) has likely slightly declined. I certainly agree that we should view such statistics (from both sides) skeptically, and with an eye towards their limitations and the unwarranted spin that's put on them.

Your argument comes perilously close to being comparable to suggesting that the deaths of executed murderers should be added to the total of murder victims. It seems to me that the other guys are right. It might be more sensible to add the self-inflicted drunk-driving deaths to the suicide totals.
8.21.2007 8:17pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Dearieme: (1) Executed murderers, who are generally deliberate killers, are in a very different moral category from drunk drivers who cause death (often their own) out of culpable negligence (or even the sort of recklessness involved in drunk driving). That's why a drunk driver's death is generally tragic, in a way that a murderer's death is not.

(2) In any event, however tragic or not a drunk driver's own death may be, it is still a "real" "drunk driving death[]."
8.21.2007 8:23pm
Sean M:
In other news, the study found that half of all states had drunk driving deaths higher than the median.
8.21.2007 8:45pm
You missed something else, EV- the 13,470 number also ignores the possibility that a person was legally drunk (over .08), but that slight impairment wasn't a contributing factor (or at least not a significant one, to the point of "were it not for the drunkenness, the accident wouldn't have happened") to the accident.
8.21.2007 8:52pm
QuintCarte (mail):
I don't think "someone else" is the only key phrase there. "clearly drunk driver caused" is also pertinent. The NHTSA is extremely liberal about what it considers an alcohol related accident. For example, if a sober driver kills another driver who is under the influence, that counts as a alcohol related accident. Even if the driver who was drinking and got killed made no mistakes. Even if he was stationary. If there is any alcohol present, regardless of cause and effect and who is at fault, it's an alcohol related accident according to them.

Whether that really means they are off by a factor of 4, I have no idea. But it is, I believe, an inflated count.
8.21.2007 8:58pm
Milhouse (www):
A friend of mine was recently killed by a drunk driver. The guy had even been arrested for driving drunk before. But as best as I can tell, his drunkenness played little or no role in the accident. A third car hit the drunk's car and forced him into my friend's car. I have no information on the real culprit's alcohol level. Based on the information I have I would not call this an alcohol-related death, but the NHTSA would.
8.21.2007 9:06pm
MikeC&F (mail):
The point Balko and others are making exists in a broader framework: MADD and other groups use these drunk driving death numbers in support of legislation cracking down on drinking-and-driving. MADD and associated groups argue the false inference that each of these people were victims of a drunk driver.

Most of us really couldn't care less about drunks who kill themselves. They are all entitled to Darwin Award nominations. But we all do (or should) care about the innocent people who are killed by drunks on the road.

So MADD's argument becomes much less compelling when you consider that the reported numbers usually largely involve drunks killing themselves.

I still think drinking and driving is a huge problem, and I'm in support of zero tolerance laws myself. If you drink (even "one or two beers"), you don't drive. Period.

But that doesn't mean we should stand by silently when advocacy groups manipulate people into thinking that every person killed due to drunk driving is a victim.
8.21.2007 9:16pm
above point entirely correct. we no longer refer to "drunk drivers" because (for many, if not most people) a .08 is not "drunk."

the preferred term is Impaired.

frankly , a career alcoholic is arguably not even impaired, in a practical sense at a .08, but he is LEGALLY impaired because that's the law.

but we cops no longer look for "drunk drivers." we look for impaired drivers. i have gotten numerous convictions for DUI on people who were NOT drunk (by any reasonable definition) but WERE impaired and/or in excess of the .08 limit.

my state (and many others) criminalizes driving impaired and/or driving a .08 or above. so, if it can be proved that one is a .08, then one not even need to prove impairment.

although i know some activist judges who don't care what the law is and want to see impairment.
8.21.2007 9:28pm
Owen Hutchins (mail):
I think the most important thing this shows is that the drive to force states to lower the limit to 0.08% was ultimately useless. It has not had the effect claimed. I suspect that soon we will see the forces of neo-Prohibition start in on lowering it again.
8.21.2007 9:29pm
oh, also. just because somebody was driving "drunk" (impaired) doesn't even mean they were the cause of the accident, or that they could have done anything to prevent it, yet these are still included in NHTSA (and MADD's) DUI stats.

for example. i went to a fatality recently where an impaired driver was stopped at a stoplight, and a sober driver rear-ended him and killed him.

the drunk driver, even if sober , almsot certainly still would have died anyway.

i also find the argument that a dUI driver is not a victim to be a little absurd. there is a saying in law enforcement that there are NO victims, which is that argument taken to a logical extrerme. because MANY victims play at least some part (recklessness, stupidity, etc.) in their own deaths. trust me on that. (cue: john kennedy jr. reference)

example: DV victim been beaten to within an inch of her life multiple times by her boyfriend. refuses to assist in prosecution and CONTINUES to hang out with, schtup, and live with offender. then, gets killed by him. she is still a victim.

unlike the DUI drivers, she did not commit a crime, but she certainly made choices that contributed to her death
8.21.2007 9:37pm
MikeC&F (mail):
"I suspect that soon we will see the forces of neo-Prohibition start in on lowering it again."

I support zero-tolerance laws. I like to drink. It's fun. I just drank last weekend.

I did not drive.

I went on a wine tasting a few weeks ago.

I did not drive.

I'll probably get hammered in a couple of weeks at a college football game.

I won't drive.

It's entirely possible to support zero tolerance laws while also maintaining a love of imbibing.

Drink all you want. Just don't drink and drive.
8.21.2007 9:39pm
"a drunk driver's death is generally tragic": aren't you being a little sentimental there?
8.21.2007 9:44pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I think that the biggest falacy with the MADD push to drop the legal alcohol level from .10 to .08 was the assumption that the risk was a straight line function. It isn't. Someone at .20 is significantly more than twice as dangerous as someone at .10. And .30? Even Whit's hard core alcoholics have a problem at that level, and the rest of us can't see the end of the hood. That is, of course, assuming that .30 doesn't kill you through alcohol poisoning, which it may if you aren't used to that level of alcohol in your blood.

I would attempt to qualify Whit's comment about .08 being impaired. For many, it really isn't physically imparing, but rather, they are legally impaired. For someone in his position, that is what matters. Of course, when Colorado publishes its DUI taskforce results for its annual crackdown in a couple weeks, we will see many using "intoxicated" instead of "impaired", despite the reality of Whit's comments above.
8.21.2007 11:06pm
good post. one thing i have noticed is that with career alcoholics, people who have a homeostasis level with a blood alcohol over .10, that they can walk the straightest line in the world, recite the alphabet backwards in swahili, etc. they do NOT appear impaired at a .10 (or .08).

however, as the law is written in many states- it doesn't matter how impaired they seem/act, as long as they are at least a .08, they are LEGALLY impaired. that point was spot on. the only NHTSA approved field sobriety test that they are going to fail is nystagmus. and of course, 4 cues of nystagmus *is* PC to arrest. but if people are thinking they are going to screw up the walk and turn or the one leg stand - probably not.

it's similar to a heroin addict who can function GREAT with a level of heroin in their system that would render the average person a slurring, lethargic (but happy) mess.

i have little doubt that a hardcore alcoholic could probably drive BETTER at a .08 than many people do sober.

but the law HAS to often draw arbitrary lines. we do it with age of consent, as well, for example.

and as long as those limits are clearly spelled out (like the .08 thang), i think it's fair.
8.22.2007 12:08am
Josh Barro:
Eugene, my understanding about these stats generally (and this may not be the case here) is that they include accidents in which either driver had a BAC above .00. So, it includes accidents where (1) a not-at-fault driver had alcohol in his or her system or (2) an at-fault driver had a low but nonzero BAC and did not cause the accident because of drinking. So, even if (as you plausibly suggest) self-inflicted drunk driving deaths should be excluded, these numbers are still too high.
8.22.2007 12:25am
Anonymouseducator (mail):
A drunk driver makes a bad decision, putting himself and others at risk, but I think we go too far in implying that death is an appropriate punishment.
8.22.2007 12:44am
Vic Stull (mail):
I believe it. Last week the Sheriff's Dept. brought me a case on a guy arrested three times in eight days. His blood/alcohol content, not in order, was .39%, .46%, and, drum roll please, .54%, the highest I've ever personally seen, or even heard of, in 25 years as a prosecutor.
8.22.2007 1:05am
.54 is pretty amazing.

highest i ever had was a .46

iirc, .54 is well over the ld50 level for etoh.
8.22.2007 1:17am
Joe Hiegel:
I can think of several reasons for which we wouldn't necessarily consider the reading reliable, but reports that doctors in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, encountered a patient with a .914% BAC, although he was not driving drunk (in fact, most interestingly, he came to need medical care as a result of his being stricken by a car [albeit apparently when he wandered into the road]); that would, according to a blood alcohol concentration calculator, follow from, for instance, a 180-pound, high tolerance-possessing man's drinking 38 shots of 80-proof liquor, but those Eastern Europeans are, of course, a hearty sort.
8.22.2007 3:17am
John D. Galt (mail):
QuintCarte understates the case. NHTSA requires local police to report an accident to them as "alcohol related" if ANYONE involved was drinking, whether or not (s)he was driving. If a drunken pedestrian stumbles in front of your car and gets hit, that's an "alcohol related accident" to NHTSA.

As Reason magazine pointed out, MADD's real goal is to make it illegal to consume ANY alcohol, even a trace amount in the sauce on your dinner, and drive. And NHTSA's current effort to make interlocks compulsory on every car would come very close to having that effect. Certainly you would not be able to have wine with dinner and rely on your car working for the trip home.

At some point we need to let people make their own risk/reward decisions. That's what being an adult is about.
8.22.2007 4:22am
Zubon (mail) (www):
Radley Balko's comment covers the downward adjustment for "if anyone involved was drinking." There is some question about how you determine whether the impaired driver was at fault, and you can argue about whether adult passengers of impaired drivers should be considered innocent victims, but those numbers will be swamped by the impaired drivers who kill themselves. About 1/4 as "innocent victims" is accurate.

You can even check this yourself. FARS, the federal database, is online. You can see who died, who was impaired, who was a pedestrian, age, sex, race, hazardous action, anything. Query as many years as you like, determine who you think was an innocent victim, and report back. You will probably be in the neighborhood of 1/4 of all alcohol-involved.
8.22.2007 9:24am
markm (mail):
"NHTSA requires local police to report an accident to them as "alcohol related" if ANYONE involved was drinking, whether or not (s)he was driving." If that's the standard, then if you're the designated driver and get rear-ended on the way home, it counts as "alcohol related" because your PASSENGER had a non-zero BAC. Is that true?
8.22.2007 10:04am
Anon1ms (mail):
JDG: "At some point we need to let people make their own risk/reward decisions. That's what being an adult is about."

Given the choice of JDG's "anything goe if you're willing to pay the price" attitude, and tough, if not always consistent, drunk driving laws, I'll take the latter.
8.22.2007 11:31am
WHOI Jacket:
I have nystagmus naturally, I dread getting pulled over by the cops. Any cases of punishment getting metted out because someone "failed" the sobriety test that way?
8.22.2007 12:08pm
um , if you have nystagmus, how about telling the cop "i have natural nystagmus". a small %age of people do, and most know it when they do.

FST's are an evidence gathering thang. a cop should ask (NHSTSA standardized) about medical conditions, etc. and if you have a condition that makes one of the tests problematic, then volunteer that info
8.22.2007 1:05pm
WHOI Jacket:

It's not really a problem. Tell the cop immediately that you have natural nystagmus. It's in their training that some people have it naturally. And of course agree to take a breath or a blood test. It will show you're in the clear.

If for some reason you get a cop who won't listen, it should be easy enough to prove you have natural nystagmus in court even though you haven't been drinking all day (and have witnesses to prove it).
8.22.2007 1:54pm
Kelvin McCabe:
Slightly off-topic, but as far as MADD's push to increase penalties - i point to you the zero tolerance laws regarding so-called drugged driving. In IL, the DUI statute has several ways to commit the offense. 1)BAC over .08% 2)The driver is simply intoxicated (i.e, driver refused to blow but the cop has PC to think he is impaired 3)there is any detectable amount of cannabis or narcotics in the their blood/breathe/whatever.

Three above is the Per Se law that will be coming to a State near you, thanks to MADD. I wont quibble with the narcotic section (although an argument can be made its ridiculous as well) but for cannabis, as anybody knows, the metabolites from THC consumption can stay in the body for weeks or up to a month (depending on frequency of use and body fat, etc...). So you smoke a doob at some guys house and two weeks later hit a sobriety checkpoint, and for whatever reason (you look like a stoner, or the cop finds marijuana paraphernelia, etc...) you get charged with this BS law. This is a true non-impairment law, as the impairment is assumed by law simply by having any trace amounts of any banned substance in your system. And no, they dont have to actually do a blood draw - as a cop who pulls a car over and smells the distinct smell of cannabis and claims its coming from the drivers mouth will suffice.(like with refusing to blow, a driver can refuse a drug test, but his license will be summarily suspended longer the same as people who refuse breathe tests)

This is insanity and has made a mockery of the purpose behind the DUI statute which is to keep the roads safe from impaired drivers who are a legitimate threat to the general public. A trace amount of marijuana in the system from weeks past is not and cannot not lead to impairment, and is another sign that the war on marijuana has simply gone too far.

But there is no end of politicians jockying to get MADD's support, so the commenters prediction above regarding .06% BAC for alcohol wouldnt surprise me a bit. Or .01% ten years after that as people continue to drink and drive and get in accidents. As far as numbers, alcohol related traffic accidents/fatalities (even the low-ball numbers that reflect alcohol has the primary cause of the accident)are stratospherically higher than marijuana only drivers involved in fatal accidents. Ridiculous.
8.22.2007 2:46pm
Houston Lawyer:
I would like to see the stats on how many people were killed by an accident in which one of the drivers was talking on a cell phone. I've read that talking on a cell phone while driving, hands free or not, has the same effect as a .08% blood alcohol level.
8.22.2007 2:50pm
...Max... (mail):
Personally, I remain firmly convinced that failure to pay attention to the road ahead (incl. further ahead than the first rear bumper you see) and awareness of what's/who's around you and behind you is far and away the primary cause of accidents. Undoubtedly cell phones and intoxication contribute to this root cause but (a) it is quite possible to keep your attention on the road in spite of either and (b) plenty of people just don't pay attention while stone sober and lacking distractions. So I invariably get irritated at calls for blanket prohibition in the name of safer roads -- ignoring the true root cause won't get you far.

Interestingly enough, those few defensive driving courses I had to attend properly stressed the need for attention and situational awareness (among other things). But in the media, it's always about alcohol and speeding and cell phones. I guess being an idiot behind the wheel is an inalienable right as long as you're the sober, law-abiding kind of idiot.
8.22.2007 3:30pm
LongSufferingRaidersFan (mail):
Whit you are an evil person--sorry, but it is true. Would you use the same kind of logic to rationalize being a guard at Auschwitz?
8.22.2007 3:37pm
LongSufferingRaidersFan -- Aside from proving the validity of Godwin's Law, what was the point of your silly rhetorical question?

Whit said "the law HAS to often draw arbitrary lines. we do it with age of consent, as well, for example. and as long as those limits are clearly spelled out (like the .08 thang), i think it's fair."

Kindly explain what that has to do with the Holocaust?
8.22.2007 4:05pm
Ahcuah (mail):
There is something even more wrong about the statistics of the story (regardless of any blood alcohol levels), and Sean M. touched on it.

First, whenever looking at such statistical numbers, remember that if they are within a square root or two of each other (as a general rule of thumb), then they are identical with each other. So, while deaths may have dropped slightly, statistically, there is no evidence of a change of the basic rate.

Next, I guarantee you, if you divide such a "sample" (yes, it is not a sample, but when considering ongoing random events occurring at a specific rate, the same statistics arise) into 50 different buckets, you will find that about half the buckets will show an increase from their previous sample, and half the buckets will show a decrease.

22 is pretty close to 25 (this could all be quantified, but is not worth the trouble), so there you have it.

Dog bites man.
8.22.2007 4:06pm
markm If that's the standard, then if you're the designated driver and get rear-ended on the way home, it counts as "alcohol related" because your PASSENGER had a non-zero BAC. Is that true?

Yes, that's why the numbers are so grossly exaggerated. The self-inflicted deaths EV mentioned are a small part of the difference between the report and the reality of the numbers killed by impaired drivers.
8.22.2007 5:25pm
joe h (mail):
There's a study by Levitt and Porter concluding that drinking drivers are 7 times more likely to be the cause of a fatal crash and drunk (in the era of .10) are 13 times more likely. It can be viewed at
8.22.2007 6:51pm
joe h (mail):
Sorry, the link didn't make it, and I seem to be unable to post it. I found it by going to Levitt's papers section on UChicago web site.
8.22.2007 6:56pm
actually, the driving drugged thing is also arbitrary.

for example...

studies have shown that many stimulants IMPROVE driving. like many drugs, it's a u-shaped response curve.

iow, a moderate amount of a # of stimulants IMPROVEs reaction time, etc. and people using those stimulants (all other factors being equal) show improved driving skill.

examples: caffeine and cocaine.

so, having a moderate amount of cocaine in your bloodstream does not IMPAIR you. it can actually IMPROVE your driving. so, calling it "driving impaired" is a bit of a stretch

maybe people would feel better if they just renamed the crime to "driving while having certain drugs in your system"

again, driving is not a right. it's a privilege. legislatures can certainly pass laws saying its illegal to drive with ANY amount of cocaine , meth, etc. in your system.

but technically speaking, in many cases one is not impaired at all merely because one has a controlled substance (like cocaine) in the system.

many legislatures have chosen to make driving with any measurable amount of cocaine in your bloodstream illegal. they have that authority, whether or not one agrees with it on a policy basis, and whether or not small amounts of cocaine "impair" driving (it doesn't).
8.22.2007 7:00pm
Waldensian (mail):
Does any state actually require a driver to participate in a field sobriety test? I gather that many (all?) states make it a separate crime to refuse to blow into a breathalyzer, but I've never heard of a similar punishment for refusing to stand on one foot, etc.

Come to think of it, does a driver have a constitutional right to decline to participate in a field sobriety test?

I should know these things, but it really isn't my area and it's been a long, long time since law school....
8.22.2007 11:43pm
Houston Lawyer wrote at 8.22.2007 1:50pm:
I would like to see the stats on how many people were killed by an accident in which one of the drivers was talking on a cell phone. I've read that talking on a cell phone while driving, hands free or not, has the same effect as a .08% blood alcohol level.
I have no stats, and a sample of 1, ie: anecdote. But as a bicyclist I've had plenty experience being run off the road by idiots holding cellphones in left hand, yakking, and not watching where they're going. Typical scenario is that they don't bother to look right or signal before turning right, directly across the well marked bike lane. They don't even signal because they're holding a @&#%ing cellphone in their left hand and won't take it away from their ear to reach the signal lever.

If I see somebody yakking on a cell phone, I make every effort to stay way behind them, never beside them or ahead. It's as good a sign as weaving that they are unable or unwilling to drive competently. But that's hard to do when they zip up beside you at an intersection and turn right just as you're rolling across it at speed.
8.23.2007 12:04am
"Does any state actually require a driver to participate in a field sobriety test?"

not to my knowledge.

" I gather that many (all?) states make it a separate crime to refuse to blow into a breathalyzer,"

none that i am aware of. in no state i have worked in as a cop is it a CRIME to refuse to blow. it can result in ADMINISTRATIVE sanctions against your Drivers license, but it is your right to refuse the test. in some states, your refusal can be mentioned and used against you in court as evidence. in others, it can't. depends on case law.

" but I've never heard of a similar punishment for refusing to stand on one foot, etc. "

you have the absolute right to refuse a sobriety test. it is not a crime to refuse. however, your refusal to perform said test can contribute to the totality of circumstances that = probable cause.

in my state, we must specifically refer to the tests as "voluntary" when we ask if a person wants to perform them. if we don't a defense lawyer can argue it was coerced.

now in some states and under some circumstances, you CAN compel somebody to provide a blood sample - like when you have probable cause for certain offenses (motor vehicle homicide, etc.) but in no states that i am aware of can you compel somebody to perform FST's.

"Come to think of it, does a driver have a constitutional right to decline to participate in a field sobriety test? "

he has an absolute right to refuse. but he can be CIVILLY sanctioned for doing so (see: implied consent) which can result in automatic license suspension.

since driving is a PRIVILEGE not a right, states have incorporated an "implied consent" wherein if you want to drive in that state, you must consent to a chemical test when driving in that state AND there is probable cause to arrest you for DUI *or* you will face administrative penalties.

unlike most misdemeanors, every DUI case is essentially a civil and a criminal case wrapped into one. the civil stuff references license revocation/suspension based upon eiter a refusal to blow or a breath test where you blow over a certain BRAC (.08). and like all civil cases, it need only be proved by preponderance. so, you can lose your license (civil) and still be not guilty of the DUI (criminal)
just as you have a constitutional right to tell your boss he's a fat pig, but he has the authority to fire you for that. neither is a crime.
8.23.2007 1:36am
Josh644 (mail):

since driving is a PRIVILEGE not a right

That statement is illogical, since a privilege is in fact a right. Privileges are a subset of rights (those enjoyed by persons with specific advantages).

Even worse, however, is your implication that the right to drive must be "earned". Wrong. I do not owe the government anything in order to be allowed to drive. Once the government has determined that I will not be a threat to others while behind the wheel, it should issue a license without pledges of allegiance, additional taxes, or any other consideration.
8.23.2007 7:15am
oh, here we go again.

it's a privilege. there is no constitutional right to drive. period. you must prove your WORTHINESS to do so. and this has never been successfully challenged in court. every state has a "privilege" to drive, and this may be revoked without any sort of criminal trial etc.

that's a privilege.

you are speaking of how you wish things were. i am speaking o how things are. thus, you are being illogical since you are stating your wishes as if they were truths.

deal with reality. it's a privilege.

note : that's to drive on PUBLIC roadways. you have every RIGHT to drive on private roadways (in most jurisdictions) without any go-ahead from the govt.

that's how it is. not how you want it to be
8.23.2007 11:17am