Drunk Driving vs Distracted, Drowsy or Drugged Driving

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on January 2nd, 2012

I've received feedback concerning my post five days ago (Let's Define the Objective: Preventing Drinking — or Traffic Fatalities?), and there seems to be some skepticism concerning the relative dangers of drunk driving versus driving while either distracted, drowsy or drugged.  As I said in my post, the focus should be on the relative dangers to human life – not on whether alcohol is involved.  So let's take a look at that…

The President of MADD has been quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying: "We don’t want cell phones and drowsy driving to become the next hot-button issue for the country, because they don’t even compare with the problem of drunk driving."  The Partnership for Safe Driving, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., responded:

Let’s examine the claim. During the year 2001, the government estimates that 17,448 – or 41 percent – of the deaths on our nation’s highways were "alcohol-related." In addition, approximately 275,000 – or 16 percent – of the injuries were attributed to alcohol. Since the rate of fatalities is so high, and so much higher than the rate of injuries, let’s take a closer look at that statistic.

Of the 17,448 fatalities, 2,555 occurred in crashes where alcohol was detected but no one was over the legal limit. In these crashes, alcohol may not have been the primary factor in the crash; speed, distraction or fatigue could have been. That leaves 14,893 deaths that can actually be attributed to alcohol. However, of these, 1,770 were intoxicated pedestrians and cyclists who walked out in front of the vehicles of sober drivers. They had nothing to do with drunk driving.

The Partnership questions why these deaths were thrown in with what is normally presented as a drunk driving statistic. That leaves 13,123 deaths that can be attributed to intoxicated drivers. Of these, a staggering 8,308 were intoxicated drivers who killed themselves in crashes. That leaves 4,815 deaths in which intoxicated drivers killed someone other than themselves….

How do these figures compare with cell phone use?

To date, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis has provided the only nationwide estimates of cell phone involvement in fatal and injury-producing crashes. Researchers there report that cell phones are now a factor in approximately 2,600 fatalities annually and 330,000 moderate to critical injuries. But because the data on cell phone use by motorists are still limited, the range of uncertainty is wide. Researchers say that the range for fatalities is 800 to 8,000 annually, and the range for injuries is 100,000 to one million annually….

And fatalities caused by tired and sleepy drivers?

As with cell phone use, the influence of drowsy driving and fatigue on crashes often is not known unless the driver survives the crash and admits to having nodded off. Unlike both alcohol involvement and cell phone use, there is no scientific method even available for determining its presence. That said, the government estimates conservatively that 1,500 people are killed annually as a result of motorists who fall asleep at the wheel, and another 71,000 are injured annually in such crashes. However, the National Sleep Foundation believes that drowsy driving and fatigue often play a role in crashes that are attributed to other causes. For example, the government lists driver inattention as the primary cause of approximately one million police-reported crashes each year. The sleep foundation points out that drowsy driving and fatigue make such lapses of attention more likely….

Confirmation of this data has come from a study ("Drunk or Drowsy?") jointly undertaken by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which found that “Nearly nine out of every ten police officers…reported they had stopped a driver who they believed was drunk, but turned out to be drowsy…. According to NHTSA data, up to 100,000 police-reported crashes annually involve drowsiness or fatigue as a principal causal factor.” 

Interestingly, “89 percent of police officers agreed that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving”. 

MADD’s passionate fixation on drunk driving appears to be blinding it to the importance of other, possibly more significant, causes of traffic fatalities.

  • Jean-Pierre

    Surrounded by twisted metal, steering column embedded in the chest, do you really care whether it was weed or Johnnie Walker, whether he/she was drowsy or drunk, depressed or euphoric? Obsessed with measurement, we crunch numbers relating to all aspects of life. so now we can differentiate between crashes influenced by alcohol and other drugs yet the cars are still mangled and the blood still on the pavement. The problem parallels that of obesity. Unhappy with the result of habitual overeating, we indict the chef. Americans want to drink and drug. Afterward they want to drive. But they want institutions of society to intervene so they do not inflict serious injury upon themselves. A wee bit of common sense goes a long way.

  • GoodJob

    MADD is basically run by guilt-ridden parents that were too busy with their own careers to keep an eye on their kids.  So their kids were, well, kids – and some killed themselves doing dumb things and testing limits.
    The thing these mothers need to understand is that they can lock up every social drinker in this country, but their precious little kids will not come back, EVER.   It's great that these women have now found the time to do something other than kiss their way up the corporate ladder, but they already missed their chance, and now they have dead kids and no one else to blame, except some stranger coming home from a bar after 3 drinks with co-workers.