One decision takes the lives of 28 people every day in the United States: choosing to drive while drunk. That is one person losing their lives every 52 minutes in accidents that didn’t have to happen.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about one-third of all traffic fatalities involve drunk drivers. While the number of impaired fatalities decreased by about 5% from 2018 to 2019 (most recent data available), almost 11,000 people were killed. That’s a number still far too high. Younger drivers make up the majority of the offenders. About 67% of all drunk driving accidents were at the hands of drivers 34 years old and younger. Weekends and nights are when the bulk of crashes occur.
Accidents and Arrests
While startling, the statistics on fatalities only tell a part of the picture. The FBI reports that in 2019 more than 1 million people were arrested for driving under the influence in this country. More than 20,000 drunk driving arrests were reported in 2018 in Colorado.
Deaths and Injuries
Colorado’s death toll for 2019 is 164, a drop from 188 deaths in the previous year. That is good news but 2019 was still an increase over the death tolls in both 2015 and 2016. Overall, 27% of all Colorado traffic fatalities involve alcohol.
The states reflecting the most drunk-driving deaths in relation to overall traffic fatalities are below:
- North Dakota (41%)
- Texas (37%)
- Montana (36%)
The states with the smallest percentage of drunk driving traffic fatalities are as follows:
- Utah (16%)
- Vermont (19%)
- Kentucky (20%)
Accidents caused by drunk driving also result in injury. NHTSA reports that about 290,000 people are injured annually in these crashes. Some of these injuries are catastrophic with life-changing impacts.
Anyone injured in a crash caused by a drunk driver may have grounds to file a personal injury suit. The survivors of someone killed may have a case for wrongful death.
Legal Limits and Consequences
The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to be considered impaired is .08 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood in every state but Utah. In the Beehive State, the BAC was lowered to .05 effective Dec. 13, 2018. Interestingly, Utah was also the first state to reduce the BAC from .10 to .08 in 1983.
Legal consequences and definitions of impaired driving vary among the states. Colorado has three categories of impaired driving:
- DUI (Driving Under the Influence): Driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination. The BAC is .08. The driver is considered under the influence when their ability to operate a vehicle is substantially impaired.
- DWAI (Driving While Ability Impaired): A person is considered slightly impaired with a BAC of more than .05% but less than .08%.
- DUI Per Se: Operating a vehicle with a BAC of .08% or greater.
Colorado law considers driving to mean physical control of a vehicle, even if the vehicle is not moving. You can be convicted of any of the three categories even if you are not driving in the literal sense of the word.
Legal penalties for drunk driving in Colorado:
- DWAI, 1st Offense: Up to 180 days in jail; up to 2 years of probation, fines between $200 and $500; 24-48 hours of public service
- DUI, 1st Offense: Up to 1 year in jail; up to 2 years of probation; fines between $600 and $1,000; 48-96 hours of public service. There are stiffer penalties even on the first offense if BAC is .20% or higher, including mandatory jail time.
- DUI, Subsequent Offense: Depending on how many offenses and the timing of them, mandatory jail sentences range from 10 to 160 days; possible sentences up to 2 years, 2-4 years of probation; fines between $600 and $1,500; 48-120 hours of public service
In addition to criminal penalties imposed by the court, the Colorado Department of Revenue imposes administrative penalties. This includes suspension or revocation of your driver's license. Anyone driving on a license that was suspended because of impairment faces mandatory jail, probation, fines, and public service. Points may also be assessed on your driving record.
Drunk Driving and the Seasons
There are periods each year that see usually bring higher DUI accident and arrest rates. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day come one right after the other, making for a long celebratory season. We gather with friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family to celebrate. These celebrations often include alcohol, and not everyone drinks responsibly.
With this festive period right around the corner, the statistics of the last two years are interesting – especially in light of the pandemic affecting 2020. The Colorado Department of Transportation has specific high visibility enforcement periods around holidays and other seasonal activities. Across the board, arrests were down in 2020 for the enforcement periods from late November through early January.
Here is a breakdown of arrests for each of the three major fall and winter holidays for the past two years:
- New Year’s Eve 2020 (Dec. 29-Jan. 2): 170
- New Year’s Eve 2019 (Dec. 27-Jan.2): 360
- Holiday Parties 2020 (Dec. 4-14): 349
- Holiday Parties 2019 (Dec. 6-16): 572
- Thanksgiving Weekend 2020 (Nov. 20-30): 354
- Thanksgiving Weekend 2019 (Nov. 22-Dec. 2): 430
These holidays aren’t the only ones targeted for higher enforcement. CDOT shows the following statistics for enforcement periods so far in 2021. The number in parentheses is the number of arrests for 2020. For all but two, there are fewer arrests this year.
- Winter Blitz, Jan. 15-25: 391 arrests (588)
- Super Bowl Weekend, Feb. 5-8: 188 arrests (229)
- Presidents Week, Feb. 12-22: 362 arrests (578)
- St. Patrick’s Day, March 12-18: 229 arrests (195)
- Spring Events, April 2-May 10: 1,484 arrests (468)
- Memorial Day, May 28-June 1: 223 arrests (232)
- Fourth of July, July 2-5: 76 (171)
- Labor Day Crackdown, Aug. 18-Sept. 6: 538 (694)
Compelling Statistics Around the U.S.
Looking at drunk driving throughout the U.S. also helps us understand how we are doing here in Colorado.
- Texas had the most deaths involved drunk driving accidents in 2019 with 1,332 fatalities.
- California ranked second highest with 949.
- Florida’s fatality count of 790 made it the state with the third-highest rate.
- So far in 2021, Montana has the highest rate (31%) of fatal accidents with a driver having a BAC of .15 or higher.
- While not a state, Washington, D.C. had just 6 drunk driving fatalities.
Costs and Societal Impact
Driving drunk affects more than the people directly involved in an accident. The impact stretches beyond their families. According to the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, drunk driving costs this country more than $132 billion each year. Drunk driving affects everyone’s insurance rates, taxes, and medical and property costs.
Progress over 40 Years
In the last 40 years, we have increased the age to legally drink and decreased the limit to be considered drunk while driving. Compared with all traffic fatalities, the percentage of drunk driving fatalities has decreased by almost 31% since 1985. Looking specifically at the Centennial State, we had 422 alcohol-related fatalities in 1982. Since that time, we have cut our deaths by more than half. Yet alcohol remains a leading cause of vehicle accidents in the U.S.
Standing Beside Victims of Drunk Driving
At Doehling Law, we firmly believe that anyone who has been injured in a crash caused by a drunk driver should be compensated for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Our decades of experience help us to strategically represent our clients through negotiation and litigation.
Put our insight to work for you. If you believe you have a personal injury or wrongful death case, contact us for a free initial consultation. Call (970) 292-7171 or submit our online form to schedule.