Alcoholics Not to Blame for All Drunk Driving Cases

THURSDAY April 3, 2008 -- It's easy to assume that drunk drivers are habitual drinkers, but new research suggests that people who only get drunk occasionally account for almost half of those who drive while intoxicated.

When it comes to drunk driving, "you have to worry about more than just alcoholics," said study author Dr. Nicole T. Flowers, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "You have to worry about people who consider themselves occasional drinkers or social drinkers."

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an estimated 17,602 Americans died in alcohol-related traffic crashes in 2006, accounting for about four out of every 10 traffic deaths. An estimated 13,470 of the deaths involved a legally drunk driver with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or above.

In the new study, published in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, Flowers and her colleagues examined the 2006 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey. More than 350,000 adults in the United States and its territories are interviewed as part of the survey each year.

The researchers looked at the statistics regarding reports of driving while intoxicated. They found that 84 percent of drivers who drove while intoxicated had been binge drinking, defined as downing four or more drinks in one sitting (among women) or five or more drinks (among men).

That many drinks is typically enough to make a person legally drunk.

The researchers narrowed the drinking categories further by defining two types of drinkers -- heavy drinkers (women who drink more than one drink a day and men who drink more than two) and non-heavy drinkers.

Binge drinkers who weren't heavy drinkers made up 49 percent of those who drove while intoxicated. This number was surprisingly high, Flowers said.

"To truly address alcohol-impaired driving, we need to address it as a drinking and a driving problem, and not just do things that deter people from driving once they become impaired," Flowers said.

She added that doctors need to do more than simply ask if patients have a problem with alcohol. "They're not asking specifically about the number of drinks consumed on one occasion and talking to people about the consequences of that behavior," she said.

Aaron White, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University who studies alcohol abuse, said the study is "compelling and important."

The findings show that "people who tend to drink and drive are drinking way more than a glass or two of wine with dinner," he said. "The data are more than a little scary."

However, White thinks the study could help improve the situation. "By identifying the slice of the population at greatest risk of drinking and driving, the authors have done a great service," he said. "The next step is figuring out how to target education and prevention efforts toward this group in an effort to reduce the likelihood that they will drink and drive."

More information

Learn more about drunken driving from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Posted: April 2008


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