Study Suggests Higher Alcohol Taxes Mean Fewer Drunk-Driving Fatalities

By McCarton Ackerman 04/09/15

Researchers found a correlation between increased taxes on booze and lower fatality rates.

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When it comes to keeping drunk drivers off the road, a new study suggests that hitting drinkers in their wallets could be the most effective method to lowering drunk driving fatalities.

The findings, published online in the American Journal of Public Health, associated raising taxes on alcohol with a reduction in drunk-driving accidents.

Researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville examined the effects of 2009 tax increases on alcohol in Illinois, which increased the cost of beer by 4.6 cents per gallon, wine by 66 cents per gallon, and distilled spirits by $4.05 per gallon. For those who got their booze at a bar, that translated to a one-cent increase per glass of beer and wine, and a five-cent increase for a serving of spirits.

With that minimal increase, alcohol-related traffic deaths fell overall by 26%. Deaths among young people in these accidents dropped by 27%, while fatal crashes involving alcohol-impaired and extremely intoxicated drivers declined by 22% and 25%.

The statistics are particularly noteworthy because decreases in alcohol tax rates in recent decades have made alcohol far less expensive for consumers. Having more than 10 drinks per day would cost the average person 3% of their disposable income in 2011, compared to 50% in 1950.

"Similar alcohol tax increases implemented across the country could prevent thousands of deaths from car crashes each year," said Alexander Wagenaar, a professor in the department of health outcomes and policy at the University of Florida. "While our study confirms what dozens of earlier studies have found ... what is unique is that we identified that alcohol taxes do in fact impact the whole range of drinking drivers, including extremely drunk drivers."

Other experts are less convinced. David Ozgo, senior vice president for economic and strategic analysis for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents the industry, said the findings don’t mean much because alcohol-related traffic deaths in Illinois were already on the decline before the tax increase. He also noted that drunk driving deaths have declined by 52% in the last 30 decades, from 21,113 in 1982 to 10,076 in 2013.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.