Every year, more than a million Americans are arrested for driving under the influence. That number represents just a tiny fraction of those who get behind the wheel intoxicated. According to the latest CDC reports, 111 million Americans drive drunk annually. Thousands of people die every year as a result, many of them quite young. In 2015, more than one in five fatal drunk driving accidents involved a driver aged 24 or younger.
While statistics of this kind are a bracing testament to the consequences of intoxicated driving, they aren’t entirely surprising. Due to extensive public policy and education efforts, Americans are typically aware of the risks drunk driving entails. Some of these initiatives have yielded significant improvements. Since 1983, when their iconic “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign first aired, the Ad Council suggests that 68 percent of Americans have tried to stop someone from driving after they’d been drinking. But despite these widespread and well-funded warnings, a sad truth remains: Drunk and drugged driving continues with alarming frequency across the county.
In this project, we studied why Americans continue to take the wheel when wasted, ignoring the known risks. Surveying 1,000 adults, we asked them about their motives for driving drunk or high and the circumstances that produced these dangerous decisions. Our participants revealed a startling array of justifications, suggesting some of the reasons that America’s drunk driving problem remains.
An Overwhelming Majority Under the Influence
First, let’s examine the prevalence of driving under the influence as admitted by our respondents. While men were slightly more likely than women to report driving under the influence, nearly three-quarters of respondents admitted to driving drunk or buzzed in the last year.
Apparently, that dangerous habit was established at an early age for some, with nearly 41 percent of respondents admitting to drunk driving before the age of 21. These findings resonate with fatal crash statistics, which indicate that 17 percent of all fatal drunk driving crashes involve a driver younger than the legal drinking age.
Perhaps some these respondents felt a lack of dependents limited their risks. Nearly 77 percent said they’d be less likely to drive drunk if another person, such as a child, depended on them for support. While this finding is encouraging in some respects, it’s also a seemingly strange reflection of our thinking: We’re relatively willing to risk our lives when we’re only responsible for ourselves.
Deciding to Drive Drunk: Causes and Context
Apparently, our respondents view drunk driving primarily as a matter of necessity. When offered an alternative, nearly three quarters of respondents took it every time. But those who insisted on driving themselves under the influence were often motivated by misguided confidence in their driving abilities. More than a fifth of participants said they felt they could drive while intoxicated, while others said they made a choice to drive despite being dangerously impaired; in their intoxication, they simply underestimated or disregarded the risk.
When it came to their behavior as passengers, a majority said they’d gotten into a car driven by a drunk person before. In this case, the most common cause was drunk misjudgment: They understood the risks but elected to ignore them. Others said they felt confident in the abilities of the driver or didn’t feel they were too impaired to drive. Only a small number said they did so because they had no alternatives.
Drunk Driving Deeds
Aside from dangerous outcomes, our respondents reported their drunk driving experiences included many scenarios, ranging from the banal to the bizarre. It seems one reason people drove drunk was to pick up snacks (or possibly more booze) from late-night locations like fast food drive-thrus or 24-hour establishments. Intoxicated drivers also recalled some absent-minded errors, like leaving doors and windows open. While these mistakes aren’t particularly threatening, they do reveal impairment: If you forget to turn your headlights on, you may fail to remember other essential rules of the road as well.
Other actions related to drunk driving incidents were potentially more problematic. While relatively few reported causing damage to other people or property, this may be because some averted those events by pulling over when they realized they were too drunk to drive. Many remembered embarrassing indiscretions, like driving to an ex’s house or calling them while driving.
While not drinking at all is likely the best way to prevent ambiguity about your ability to drive, our respondents varied widely in their predictions about how much they could safely drink before driving. Interestingly, many of our respondents said they could drive after drinking more than the amount needed to feel alcohol’s effects. This view runs contrary to recent public awareness campaigns, such as the “Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving” ads produced by the Ad Council and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
This concerning trend was particularly true for those who felt alcohol’s effects after one to two drinks, with more than two-thirds saying they believe they could still drink more and drive. Those who stated that they could feel alcohol’s effects after three to four drinks were less likely to feel confident in driving past that limit, though more than 38 percent said they could drive.
An Education in Alcohol
As institutions of higher education grapple with binge drinking on their campuses, we considered how drinking and driving experiences might correlate with various levels of educational attainment. When we asked participants who’ve blacked out about how they arrived home the night before, we saw a broad consistency among those who had at least some college experience. Whether they attended only some college or had obtained an advanced degree, between 21 percent and 28 percent of those with postsecondary educational experience woke up without remembering their trip home.
Those whose education ended in high school were slightly more likely to have this experience, with nearly a third recalling at least one instance of this kind. By contrast, those who attended a vocational or trade school were the least likely to admit not remembering how they got home.
Intoxication by Other Means
While drunk driving remains a troublingly commonplace occurrence, other drugs account for many deadly incidents as well. In fact, a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association found drugs account for more deadly accidents than alcohol in the latest national figures. In our findings, roughly 3 in 10 drivers drove under the influence of a substance other than alcohol, with marijuana being the most common intoxicant.
While researchers have arrived at conflicting results in their attempts to assess the effects of marijuana on driving abilities, the dangers of the second ranked substance, cocaine, are well-established. Drivers using the substance have demonstrated reckless and aggressive tendencies behind the wheel, and one can imagine the risks associated with operating a vehicle while using hallucinogens as well. High rates of opioid and heroin use nationally have also translated to roadway dangers of late, with users passing out behind the wheel.
A Sobering Look at Safety
While this project’s findings demonstrate the scope of America’s intoxicated driving problem, an important distinction must be made. The frequency with which Americans drive drunk does not excuse its danger or lessen our shared responsibility to encourage safer choices. We hope this report continues awareness of an issue that remains unresolved and gives readers reasons to reflect on their driving behavior, as well as that of those they love.
For any danger you face on the road, CheapCarInsurance.net is in your corner. With extensive resources related to insurance and driving safety, we’ll help you and your family take every safety precaution possible.
We surveyed 1,000 American adults about their experiences with driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. We then studied their responses in light of demographic information they provided.
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