Alcohol Rarely Cited As Cause of U.S. Traffic Deaths, Study Shows

By Shawn Dwyer 03/26/14

The study examined data over a 10 year period and found a major discrepancy in the number of roadside fatalities being caused by alcohol.

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According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 30 people die each day as a result of traffic accidents involving drunk drivers, amounting to one death every 48 minutes.

But a recent study has found that many death certificates rarely cite alcohol as the cause in fatal traffic accidents. Research conducted by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs revealed that of the 450,000 individuals who died in traffic accidents between 1999 and 2009, just over three percent of their state-issued death certificates listed alcohol as a contributing cause. However, information culled by the researchers from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) – a database maintained by the National Traffic Safety Administration – showed that 21 percent of those individuals were legally drunk.

Reasons for the discrepancy are not immediately clear, according to the study. While many states require blood alcohol level tests for fatally injured drivers, there is no consistency to the inclusion of test reports in death certificates. Some states like Delaware, Kansas, and Minnesota are better at providing information than others; but even in these cases, there has been no consistency to the reports. This may be caused in part by the amount of time that is required to retrieve blood alcohol test results. While coroners or medical examiners typically file a death certificate within three to five days, toxicology reports may take up to a month or even longer to receive.

By studying data from the states that have been able to provide more consistent blood alcohol level test reports, the researchers hoped that better information can be provided on the impact of policy measures meant to reduce alcohol-related deaths. They also hoped that by bringing this information to light, testing for blood alcohol levels may also be implemented for other fatalities, including drowning and falls, for which no tests or reporting systems currently exist.

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.