Death certificates miss most alcohol impaired drivers

Drunk driving remains a significant problem in the U.S. Every year, thousands of motorist die in accidents caused by intoxicated drivers. Sometimes, a single impaired driver runs off the road in Georgia, late at night, strikes a tree and dies alone.

Other car accidents may involve a drunk driver running into a van with a family, killing or seriously injuring the members of a family, who had been innocently returning home from a movie.

While much has been done in the last few decades to address this problem, from lowering the amount of alcohol that determines legal impairment to stricter enforcement and stiffer penalties, there is still a long ways to go in the fight to prevent the death and destruction caused by drunk driving accidents.

But in order to know what we should be doing, we must know how well we have done. In most cases, a death certificate lists the cause of death. However, a recent study that looked at national data of motorists who died in car accidents found that death certificates only report about three percent as having alcohol impairment as a contributory factor in their death.

When researchers looked a data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), they found that 21 percent of deaths involved those who were legally drunk. This is often because a death certificate has been issued before the results from a blood test have been reported.

The danger here is that when law enforcement or the legislature look at issues involving drunk driving, if they rely on death certificates from the state, which presumably most would, they would have a deeply flawed idea of the problem in their state.

They may inadequately support drunk driving programs and may even believe effective programs are not working, when the problem lies with the data.

Source: Think Progress, "The Surprising Issue That May Be Holding Back Effective Drunk Driving Laws," Sy Mukherjee, March 24, 2014

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