The cost of drunk driving

Car accidents claim 40,000 lives a year in the U.S.A. and a disproportionate number are caused by drunk drivers. Precise numbers are not available for the number of drunk drivers on the road each year and so it is difficult to estimate the likelihood that drinking and driving causes accidents. However, a new study analyses drunk driving and attempts to find out.

Using a statistical analysis of 40,000 two-car fatal crashes, the authors find drinking drivers to be at least seven times more likely to cause a fatal crash compared to sober drivers. For drivers who are legally drunk, this figure increases to 13. The authors find that alcohol consumption is a greater factor than all other causes of accidents, including age, sex and past driving records.

What is the price of drunk driving to American society? The authors estimate that of the 12,000 people killed in alcohol-related crashes in 1994, 3,000 were sober and thus innocent. Extrapolating from the data, the article finds:

  • Drunk driving creates a total loss of $9 billion per year or U.S. 16 cents per mile driven in the U.S.

  • The cost of drinking over the legal limit amounts to U.S. 30 cents a mile.

  • At current arrest rates – one arrest for every 27,000 miles driven by drunk drivers – a penalty of $8,000 would recover the financial cost of drunk driving.

    Despite the costs of drunk driving, there are few effective policy solutions. Taxing alcohol targets too wide a population; most people who drink, do not drink and drive. Moreover, high beer taxes do not correlate with a decrease in the number of fatal car crashes. One possible solution exists. In Stockton, California, a small police patrol dedicated to stopping drunk drivers caused drunk driving to drop by 10 to 15 percent.

    Source: Fatal Attraction, Economic Intuition, Spring 2001; based on Steven D. Levitt and Jack Porter, How Dangerous are Drinking Drivers? Journal of Political Economy, forthcoming.

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    FMF\28 August 2001
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