Traffic Deaths Tied to Alcohol May Be Underreported

Alcohol related traffic deaths underreported in study of motor vehicle crashes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The dangers of drunk driving are widely known. But are statistics about deaths from this dangerous activity accurate?

In a recent study, researchers compared two data sets to determine how car accident deaths tied to alcohol were reported.

The study found evidence that alcohol was reported as a factor in only a small percent of cases in which alcohol was likely involved.

"Call a cab if you've been drinking."

According to the authors of this new study, which was led by I-Jen Castle, PhD, of CSR, Incorporated in Arlington, Virginia, data gathered from death certificates is the main source of data on mortality in this country, but these certificates may not be accurately capturing information about alcohol's involvement in car crash deaths.

Dr. Castle and team aimed to explore deaths from motor vehicle traffic crashes and potential underreporting of alcohol's involvement in these deaths.

These researchers looked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which records the blood alcohol levels of people who are killed in car accidents.

In all US states, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher is considered legally drunk, and it is illegal to drive with this BAC.

This data was compared to death certificate information from states across the US.

Both databases identified around 450,000 motor vehicle traffic deaths in the US during 1999 to 2009.

Dr. Castle and team found that in the death certificate data, only 3.3 percent of these traffic deaths reported alcohol as a contributing cause. However, in the FARS data, blood alcohol concentration measured as legally drunk in 21.1 percent of the deaths from traffic accidents.

The researchers did not see any major changes in how often alcohol was reported as a cause in these deaths over the time period of the study. But the FARS blood alcohol results showed that the number of deaths involving legally drunk people saw a slight increase from 19.9 percent in 1999 to 24.2 percent in 2009.

Reporting of alcohol's involvement in motor vehicle traffic deaths seemed to vary from state to state, with Nevada and New Mexico among the states with the lowest reporting levels, and Delaware with the highest.

"Despite the growing recognition of alcohol use as an important risk factor for public health, the reporting of alcohol involvement on death certificates does not seem to have improved much over the years," wrote Dr. Castle and team. "Federal and state government agencies should continue to encourage or perhaps start to require death certifiers to report alcohol involvement when it contributes to death."

It is important to note that data from individual cases was not directly linked in this study, and the researchers looked instead at the data on the state and national level. The researchers noted that a number of factors could be involved in this underreporting, including missing data on the deceased's role in a crash and delayed toxicology results.

This study was published online March 24 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
March 20, 2014
Last Updated:
March 25, 2014