Alcohol-related driving deaths rose in 2012; states urged to lower BAC limits, expand ignition-interlock laws

When the clock strikes midnight, and people in states across the country ring in the new year, one of the most dangerous few hours on U.S. roadways begins. About half of all the fatal crashes on New Year's Day are due to imparied driving, higher than the rate for any other day of the year. And new National Traffic Highway Safety Administration data provide another reason for concern: With the exception of Kansas, the number of alcohol-related driving fatalities rose between 2011 and 2012 in every Midwestern state (see table).
The Midwest does fare better on another measure: impaired-driving fatalities per vehicle miles traveled. The NTHSA places seven Midwestern states in the “low range” of states (see map).Most states in the region also continue to have higher per-capita deaths due to impaired driving than the national average (see map).

Only North Dakota was in the in the “high range;” lawmakers in that state are hoping that a measure enacted in 2013 will improve those statistics and make its roads safer.

“No single law is going to solve the problem alone,” says Rep. Kim Koppleman, the sponsor of HB 1302. “It is going to take a change in culture, and what we hope is that this sends a message: North Dakota will not tolerate drinking and driving.”

Under the new law, penalties are stiffened for first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.16 or more, including a requirement that they spend at least two days in jail. 

Lawmakers also expanded the reach of the state’s 24/7 Sobriety Program, under which participants must submit twice-a-day breath tests or use an electronic alcohol monitor. All repeat offenders must now participate in the program, and for many first-time offenders, driving privileges will be contingent on 24/7 participation.

The North Dakota law also increases mandatory jail time for repeat offenders and creates a Class A felony (vehicular homicide) for impaired drivers who cause the death of another person.   

Overview of state DUI laws 

Over the past few decades, every state has revamped and toughened its impaired-driving laws.

For example, nine of the 11 Midwestern states now suspend licenses for people who fail a BAC test or refuse to take it. (In Michigan and South Dakota, administrative license suspension applies only to those who do not take the BAC test, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration.)

Every state in the region, too, has tougher penalties for drivers nabbed with high BAC levels. Laws vary on when the sanctions kick in — BAC levels of 0.15 in Indiana and Nebraska, for example, and 0.20 in Minnesota.

Repeat DUI offenses can also now result in felony convictions — after a third or fourth offense in most states. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Indiana and Minnesota are among the four U.S. states where a second DUI offense can be a felony.

But should states do more?

The National Transportation Safety Board thinks so. In a May 2013 report, it notes that gains in traffic safety have slowed, and that the United States is lagging behind other nations. Between 2001 and 2010, alcohol-related road deaths in European Union countries fell 53 percent, compared to 24 percent in this country. 

The NTSB is now recommending that states lower the legal BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05 (this lower level is used in most EU nations). 

It also says states should make greater use of ignition interlock devices, which disable a car’s engine if alcohol is detected on the driver. One idea is to require anyone convicted of a DUI offense to install this device; Ill

inois, Kansas and Nebraska already have such laws on the books, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Stateline Midwest ~ December 20131.76 MB