The Sobering History of Drunk Driving in the US and Why It’s Still Prevalent

The Sobering History of Drunk Driving in the US and Why It's Still Prevalent

The Persistence of Drunk Driving Deaths in America: Exploring Legislative Solutions


Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI) has been a leading cause of car crashes and fatalities in America for decades. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that alcohol-impaired driving accounted for 28% of all traffic-related deaths in 2019. Despite the progress made in reducing these deaths since the 1980s, when drunk driving claimed almost 20,000 American lives annually, much work remains to be done.

The Historical Fight against Drunk Driving in America

Over the years, a combination of laws, public service campaigns, and fierce opposition by advocacy groups turned drunk driving, which was merely frowned upon in the 1970s, into one that carries severe legal consequences and public shame. But tens of thousands of Americans still die from DUI every year.

The Success and Failure of DUI Regulations

While seat belt requirements have successfully saved thousands of lives each year, and establishing 21 as the minimum age required to purchase alcohol had a substantial impact on lowering drunk driving fatalities over the following decade, other driver safety regulations have been less successful.

Since the early 2000s, states began passing laws limiting how much alcohol a driver can legally have in their bloodstream, with strong evidence suggesting that 0.08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits help reduce drunk driving. But the push to limit alcohol intoxication while driving runs up against one of the longest-standing cultural norms in American society, where drinking alcohol is often viewed as a form of entertainment. As a result, drunk driving deaths are most prevalent on weekend nights when it is more socially acceptable to drink to the point of intoxication.

The Need for Lower BAC Limits and Increased DUI Enforcement

Efforts to save Americans from the perils of drunk driving have made little progress since the peak in the 1980s, still accounting for about 30% of lives lost in crashes since the late 1990s. To reduce and mitigate crashes related to alcohol-impaired driving, the NTSB made recommendations aimed at lowering the frequency of drunken driving on U.S. roads. Such measures include:

  • Lowering blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits to 0.05% concentration
  • Requiring drivers arrested for DUI to use alcohol interlock devices
  • Suspending drivers’ licenses of those arrested for DUI
  • Requiring law enforcement to record the establishment that last served a drink to a driver arrested for DUI
  • Enhancing sobriety checkpoints and DUI enforcement generally

Despite these recommendations, few states have implemented reforms recommended by NTSB. For instance, only Utah passed a law limiting drivers to a 0.05% BAC, and the push for such laws often confronts opposition from the restaurant industry and lobbyists concerned about job losses and creating greater liability for servers who cannot gauge whether someone has less than a 0.08% BAC.

The Urgency of Implementing the NTSB Recommendations

The recent uptick in alcohol-related driving deaths since the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged a record number of states to make a serious push for the NTSB’s recommended 0.05% BAC law. In Michigan, MADD endorsed the passage of a 0.05% BAC law one year after Utah enacted its version of the law. While some progress has been made in increasing alcohol interlock device use, holding retailers accountable, and lowering permissible blood alcohol concentrations, much more needs to be done on a legislative front to significantly reduce the number of drunk driving fatalities in America in the coming years.


The cost of drunk driving is high in America since it places not only the driver’s life at risk but also endangers the lives of everyone else sharing the road with them. While efforts to save Americans from the perils of DUI include a combination of laws, public service campaigns, and fierce opposition by advocacy groups, persistent cultural norms and tough industry opposition remain significant barriers to progress. However, the implementation of the NTSB’s recommended measures aimed at lowering the frequency of drunken driving on U.S. roads could significantly reduce and mitigate the crashes related to alcohol-impaired driving.

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