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Drunk driving deaths may be under-reported on death certificates

It is important to accurately quantify accident and fatality statistics. These data inform things like public policy decisions, laws and safety initiatives. They also provide important benchmarks showing whether or not these efforts are effective.

We know that drunk driving is a major problem in California and across the United States. This fact has been well established and is hard to refute. However, a recent study reveals that due to differing laws and reporting requirements in various states, it may be difficult to accurately report fatality rates related to drunk driving accidents.

The results recently appeared in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Researchers in the study examined 10 years of data (1999-2009) included in a national database known as the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. They compared that data to the causes of death listed on death certificates of those who died in traffic fatalities during the same period.

The discrepancies between the two were stark. Alcohol was listed as a contributing factor on just 3 percent of death certificates studied. Yet the FARS database showed that during the same decade, 21 percent of auto accident victims killed were legally drunk. In short, there was a seven-fold difference between drunk driving listed on death certificates and drunk driving listed in the FARS database.

In cases of traffic fatalities, only about half of all states require that drivers have their blood-alcohol level tested. And in these states, only about 70 percent actually are tested. In states without the requirement the testing rate is almost certainly much lower. This is, in part because death certificates are often issued within about four days of death while blood test results can take up to a week or more.

Considering that traffic accidents are a leading cause of death among young Americans, accurate reporting of related information is crucial. If statistics could show just how common and lethal drunk driving is, the response from legislators, policy makers and the general public could be strong enough to end this scourge once and for all.

Source: ThinkProgress, “The Surprising Issue That May Be Holding Back Effective Drunk Driving Laws,” Sy Mukherjee, March 24, 2014

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