Driving

States With the Most Drunk Driving Problems (2021)

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Last year was the safest on record for alcohol-impaired driving incidents since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began reporting data on these fatalities in 1982. However, despite a 5.3% decrease, alcohol impairment still causes more than a quarter of all traffic fatalities. This means that 10,142 Americans lost their lives on the road in a drunk driving accident in 2019.

Deaths caused by drunk driving are the most preventable traffic-related fatalities. Yet as alcohol consumption rates keep rising, impaired Americans continue to climb behind the wheel. Early reporting indicates that binge drinking rates surged in 2020 as well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We analyzed the latest data to compile a list of the worst states for drunk driving using data from NHTSA, the Census Bureau and the FBI. While each state has a different response to drunk driving offenses, we did uncover some trends.

We found that:

  • Wyoming ranked worst for drunk driving problems and had more fatalities per 100,000 people than any other state.
  • North Dakota was the state with the most DUIs, trailed by South Dakota and Wyoming.
  • The four most dangerous states (Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho) for drunk driving share the same geographic region.
  • The three least dangerous states also share a geographic region: District of Columbia had the fewest drunk driving issues, followed by New York and Pennsylvania.

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Most dangerous states for drunk driving

For this study, we focused on state-by-state data available on drunk driving fatalities and DUI arrests. We found that Wyoming ranked worst for drunk driving issues and had the highest fatality rate in the country. The District of Columbia experienced the fewest drunk driving problems, followed by New York and Pennsylvania. The five most dangerous drunk driving states are:

  1. Wyoming
  2. North Dakota
  3. Montana
  4. Idaho
  5. Maine
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1. Wyoming

Wyoming leads the nation in drunk driving deaths per 100,000 people, according to the NHTSA. Critics blast the state’s lenient drunk driving laws and absence of sobriety checkpoints. Alcohol-impaired driving incidents killed 36 people in Wyoming in 2019 — that number is six times greater than the total fatalities recorded in the District of Columbia, despite Wyoming’s smaller population and much larger size.

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2. North Dakota

Also known for its lax driving laws, North Dakota was a hotspot for drunk driving incidents in 2019, when it reported more DUI arrests per capita than any other state. Last year alone, the state counted 4,827 arrests for impaired driving against a population of 762,062 people. FBI crime data for DUI arrests accounts for other types of impaired driving offenses, but drunk driving remains a serious obstacle to safer roads in North Dakota.

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3. Montana

North Dakota’s neighbor to the west also ranks high for drunk driving fatalities and arrests. Mothers Against Drunk Driving cite Montana as one of the most dangerously tolerant states for drunk driving offenders, and the state’s 66 fatalities last year were enough to give it the second-highest fatality rate in the entire country.

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4. Idaho

New laws targeting first-time drunk driving offenders with ignition interlocks weren’t enough to keep Idaho off the list of most-dangerous states this year. The state jumped to a fourth-place ranking, thanks in part to it’s high DUI arrest rate of 442 per 100,000 people.

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5. Maine

Heading away from the pocket of midwestern and western states and all the way over to the Atlantic Northeast, Maine had the fifth most-frequent drunk driving issues in the nation. Maine ranks high for fatalities and even higher for DUI arrests, with nearly 5,500 in 2019 compared to its population of around 1.3 million people. It shares its only direct U.S. border with the nation’s drunkest state, New Hampshire.

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The most dangerous territory in the U.S. for drunk driving incidents is a vast stretch of land from the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains, encompassing North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. We found that each of these states appears repeatedly atop annual lists totaling per capita DUI arrests and fatalities, and faces repeated criticism from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others on lenient drunk driving laws that encourage the behavior to continue.

Some of the worst states for drunk driving problems posted notable decreases in fatalities and arrests year over year, however: Montana, 2020’s most dangerous state, saw fatalities per 100,000 people decrease by more than 15 percent. In 2020, South Carolina claimed a spot in the top 5 most dangerous drunk driving states; this year, the state saw it’s per capita DUI arrest rate slashed by more than 50%. While some of these data points show incidents on the decline, drunk driving accidents remain a serious threat to motorists in these states.

States with the most DUI per capita

The number of DUI arrests per capita in a state can give us an idea of the prevalence of drunk driving. These numbers don’t separate misdemeanors from felony arrests, and they don’t account for drunk drivers who weren’t arrested, but they do indicate which states may be less responsible when it comes to drinking and driving.

Notably, the top 4 states for DUI arrests also rank among the 10 most dangerous states for drunk driving, while Vermont ranks fifth for DUI arrests but 48th for fatalities, with 1.4 for every 100,000 people.

StateTotal DUI arrestsDUI rate per 100K people

North Dakota

4,827633
South Dakota5,522624
Wyoming3,181550
Idaho7,983442
Vermont2,680429

 

Least dangerous states for drunk driving

Alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities are decreasing on a national level. The CDC indicates that these tactics statistically reduce drunk driving: effective drunk driving laws, sobriety checkpoints, ignition interlocks for all offenders, media campaigns and treatment programs.

Our study found that the District of Columbia was safer than anywhere else in the nation for drunk driving issues last year. New York was close behind in second place, followed by Pennsylvania, Illinois and Utah.

The four states and territories safest from alcohol-impaired driving problems are home to large, densely-populated urban centers with extensive public transportation networks, including ride-share and micromobility opportunities: the District of Columbia, New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia. On the other hand, Utah has the nation’s lowest consumption rate and some of the nation’s strictest laws for obtaining alcohol, possibly affecting that state’s safety rating.

In 2020, COVID-19 drastically changed Americans’ relationships with alcohol and with driving. As these urban centers restricted access to bars and clubs, preliminary data indicates that the number of DUI arrests dramatically decreased. However, with binge drinking rates reportedly increasing, it’s possible that drunk driving frequency is on the rise during the pandemic.

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Drunkest states by alcohol consumption

Increased alcohol consumption doesn’t always mean more drunk driving incidents, but this statistic may highlight states that make more responsible decisions about drinking and driving. We analyzed state data for alcohol consumption per capita to look at which states drink the most and compared it to our findings on drunk driving.

Here’s what we found:

  • All five deadliest drunk driving states rank in the top 15 for consumption, but only North Dakota ranks in the top five.
  • New Hampshire, the drunkest state per capita, consumes alcohol at a rate 24 percent higher than the runner up, and ranks in the top 10 for DUI arrests.
  • The District of Columbia ranked second for alcohol consumption per capita, though it had the fewest drunk driving issues overall.
  • Vermont ranks 7th among the states with the highest consumption and 5th for number of DUI arrests, but only had 9 drunk driving fatalities in the last year.

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How to prevent and reduce drunk driving

These statistics help us begin to understand how prevalent drunk driving issues are, but many alcohol-related incidents and accidents remain unreported each year. Reducing drunk driving arrests and fatalities comes down to making responsible choices. If you choose to drink, make a plan in advance to find a safe ride home.

What you can do:

  • Before you drink, designate someone as a non-drinking driver.
  • If you’ve been drinking, find a sober ride home like a cab or ride-share.
  • Never let someone else who has been drinking drive a vehicle.
  • Don’t get in the car with a driver who has been drinking.

What policymakers and law enforcement can do:

  • Enforce “zero tolerance” laws for people under the age of 21.
  • Set up sobriety checkpoints to allow officers to stop and check for impaired drivers.
  • Install and mandate that first-time and repeat drunk driving offenders use ignition interlocks to check their BAC before driving.
  • Enact strict license revocation or suspension laws.
  • Increase drunk driving education and treatment for those at risk of alcohol abuse. 

Drinking and driving has costly consequences. If convicted of a DUI, you’ll likely have to pay higher insurance rates, in addition to thousands of dollars or more in fines, legal fees, and damages. More importantly, drunk driving could take someone else’s life or cost you your own.

Methodology

The Zebra compiled two data points on 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
The data points were weighted as follows:

  • Fatalities per 100,000 people – 50
  • DUI arrests per 100,000 people – 50

We pulled our data from the NHTSA, the FBI’s crime records, and the Census Bureau (all data is from 2019). The population of each state was used to determine the number of fatalities and arrests per 100,000 people. These factors were ranked, weighted, and scored to calculate the final rankings.


Additional sources: MADD | Uber

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