Tougher policies could reduce drunk driving

by Ellen Schmidt

When states enforce stricter alcohol policies and driving laws, experts say the combination can cut the number of drunken drivers on the roads.
In a joint study between the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and Boston University released earlier this month, researchers discovered that states that have alcohol policies for drivers coupled with laws aimed at preventing binge drinking also have fewer drunken drivers.
Researchers say the results of the study should motivate states to adopt harsher drinking and driving laws.
Some states are more restrictive on drunken driving than they are on binge drinking, but the better way to reduce drunken driving is through tougher policies addressing binge drinking, said Toben Nelson, the study’s co-author and a University community health associate professor.
Drunken driving is a drinking problem, not a driving problem, Nelson said, adding that he would advise states lacking in either area to balance their policies.
He said researchers worked with a team of 10 alcohol policy experts to analyze the data, which they collected from 2002 to 2010 from more than 1 million adults. When surveyed, the subjects self-reported whether they drove while impaired during the past month.
Drivers are less likely to drink when they know officials will stop them at a sobriety checkpoint, said Tom Babor, chair of the University of Connecticut’s Department of
Community Medicine and Health Care and a member of the panel. If drivers know they can only be punished if, by chance, an officer stops them, they may take the risk.
“It’s not going to stop every drunk from getting in a car,” he said. “But the more enforcement there is and the more visible it is, the less likely it is that people are going to drink and drive.”
Some experts say sobriety checkpoints are an effective way to prevent drunken driving. Minnesota law doesn’t allow the stops because they infringe upon Minnesotans’ rights to act as they wish within their own property, said Traci Toomey, a panelist and University community health professor.
“In Minnesota, we do DWI enforcement, we do media notifications so they can publicize and we are out enforcing DWI laws every day, 24 hours a day,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson, a Minnesota State Patrol officer, adding that areas with the most drunken driving occurrences are more heavily patrolled.
Compared to surrounding states, like Wisconsin, Toomey said Minnesota has tighter laws concerning alcohol availability, underage consumption and sales, but she said there’s room for improvement.
“[Minnesota] has not raised our tax in many years, and as a result, the price of alcohol is getting cheaper,” she said. “As we have inflation, the excise tax doesn’t keep up.”
Some alcohol policies, like a higher alcohol tax and stricter DWI enforcement, are beneficial to the state’s economy, Babor said, because they lead to fewer drunken drivers and bring in revenue.
“If we want to tackle serious alcohol problems in our country, the place to do it is at the state level,” Babor said.