Which US Cities Have the Most Drunk Driving?

By Sarah Beller 01/07/13

There's only one major US city where a majority of fatal crashes involve intoxication. Is it yours?

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Is Denver really the worst place to drive?
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Today The Atlantic fascinatingly crunches the results of John Nelson's analysis of drunk driving data. Nelson looked at fatal car crashes from 2001-2010 and ran the numbers for the 25 most populous US cities. When he looked at the number of fatal car crashes in each city that involved intoxication and adjusted for population size, he found Detroit at the top of the pile. But as ever with these things, it's not quite that simple: These per-capita stats weigh accidents against city population—not against how many people are actually driving through the area. In some of these cities, like Detroit, a huge number of non-resident drivers are constantly moving around, so adjusted for that, they're actually significantly safer than they first appear. Nelson also calculated data that shows which cities have the highest percentage of fatal crashes involving intoxication out of total fatal crashes, avoiding this problem of the non-inclusion of non-resident drivers. There's some overlap between the two lists, but also some differences. Here are the five worst cities (out of the 25 most populous in the US) in terms of percentage of fatal crashes involving intoxication:

1. Denver: 54.2 % of fatal car accidents involved intoxication—the only major US city where more than half fall into this category.

2. Houston: 46.8 % Also had the third highest incidents of fatal car accidents involving intoxication even when accounting for population size.

3. Chicago: 44.1 % Has relatively few fatalities in general, but a high of its fatal accidents involve intoxication.

4. Phoenix: 42.5 % Also number four when accounting for population size, and number five in terms of fatal car accidents in general.

5. Dallas: 41.4 % Also number five when accounting for population size.

Outside of the top 25 most populous US cities, the American city with the lowest percentage of fatal crashes involving intoxication is Birmingham, Alabama—where only 13.6 % of fatal crashes were substance-related. The highest percentage is in Stamford, Connecticut, where 55.8 percent of fatal crashes involve intoxication.

The results also revealed that some cities have roads that are generally safe, but with high rates of drunk driving. Chicago, for example, is the bottom ten for fatalities per capita. A large percentage of those fatalities, though, involve alcohol. Why is this so? Do some cities encourage drunk driving? The next step may be to look at which characteristics distinguish cities with high drunk-driving rates from those with low rates—even when they appear to have equally safe roads.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.