Research Priorities for Reducing Alcohol-Impaired Driving in the General Population
This Research Needs Statement presents the top research priorities for reducing alcohol-impaired driving in the general driving population identified by the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB’s) Committee on Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Transportation at its 1999 workshop. Research priorities for reducing impaired driving among other groups of interest including repeat offenders, youth, special populations, and persons impaired by drugs other than alcohol were also established at the workshop and are available on this website. For a full list of research priorities identified at the workshop, refer to TRB Circular Number 502, Alcohol and Other Drugs in Transportation: Research Needs and Priorities.
Research Priorities related to the Epidemiology of Alcohol-Impaired Driving
- Study Global Trends in Alcohol-Related Crashes and Fatalities
Problem: Drinking and driving is a worldwide concern. Over the past 20 years, alcohol-related crashes have decreased in many countries or jurisdictions. We do not understand well how much of the reduction is due to individual countermeasures and how much is due to other factors. For example, the United States has attributed much of its substantial reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities among youth to its minimum drinking age 21 law. Yet Canada has experienced similar reductions while its minimum drinking age has remained at 18 or 19.
Objective: This research should use multivariate statistical methods to estimate the effects of different countermeasures (including legislation) as well as broader social and economic influences, and begin to understand why similar countermeasures have different effects in different jurisdictions. Ample data are available for this research.
- Compare the Impaired Driving Populations on the Road, Arrested, and in Crashes
Problem: DWI enforcement’s goal is to deter drunk driving. Consequently, DWI enforcement activities and DWI arrests typically occur “where and when the drunks are”—near bars late at night, especially on weekends. But alcohol-related crashes don’t always occur at these times and places, especially crashes involving women or youth. A better understanding of drunk driving travel, arrests, and crashes would help direct DWI enforcement more effectively.
Objective: This research should compare the three populations and control for other significant factors such as age, gender, rural-urban location, and the like.
- Study the Etiology, Development, and Natural History of Drinking Drivers
Problem: Strategies to reduce drinking and driving should begin with a thorough understanding of those who drink and drive. We still have much to learn. Who are the drinking drivers? How did they develop? What were their social and environmental influences? What other problem behaviors do they exhibit?
Objective: This research should link with criminological, sociological, and public health research to provide a broad view of drinking and driving problems and solutions.
Research Questions related to Policies and Programs to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving
- Study the Relation between Enforcement Level and the Public’s Perception of Risk
Problem: Laws themselves have little effect unless they are enforced. How much enforcement is necessary to produce wide compliance with traffic laws, especially drinking and driving laws? Several examples illustrate the question’s complexity. Per se laws in the United States are widely violated (folk wisdom suggests at least 1,000 impaired driving trips for every arrest) even though drunk driving is the most common charge in many local courts. Some Australian states have reduced drunk driving substantially by very extensive high-visibility enforcement (stopping about one-third of all drivers annually for random breath tests). Zero-tolerance laws have been more effective than their poor enforcement level would suggest.
Objective: This research should investigate how enforcement level, type, and visibility affect the public’s perception of the risk of being stopped. What are the most cost-effective enforcement levels and methods? The research also should consider how the likelihood of sanctions affect risk perception: if impaired drivers frequently are released with only a warning, how does this affect risk perception and behavior? The sociological and criminal justice literature may be useful.
- How Can DWI Enforcement Be Measured?
Problem: In order to address the appropriate level of DWI enforcement, we must know how to measure it. The only generally available measure is DWI arrests. But this clearly is unsatisfactory. If drunk driving decreases substantially, then the same amount of DWI patrol time should produce fewer arrests. Also, some enforcement methods such as checkpoints produce relatively few arrests but have a high general deterrent value.
- Objective: This research should explore how best to measure DWI enforcement, considering such factors as man-hours, driver contacts, and publicity value in addition to arrests
- Study the Effects of Lower Legal Blood Alcohol Content Limits on Crashes, Injuries, and Fatalities
Problem: Blood alcohol content (BAC) limits vary widely around the world.
Objective: The results can help guide policy decisions and can serve as baseline data when BAC limits change. The research also should compare the effects of per se and administrative laws.
- Explore Technology for Identifying and Controlling Impaired Driving Offenders
Problem: The most common technological control method is the alcohol interlock, which some jurisdictions require as a condition of driver license reinstatement for driving while intoxicated (DWI) offenders. A “smart card” driver license, used as a vehicle ignition key and containing personal driver license information, is being demonstrated in prototype. The passive alcohol sensor is an example of technology currently in use to detect impaired drivers. The critical issues are administrative rather than technological. For example, in some jurisdictions interlocks are installed on the cars of fewer than 20 percent of the offenders for whom they are “required.”
Objective: This research should study these administrative issues. When should the technology be used, and for what offenders or in what situations? Who pays the costs? Who should administer the program (courts, motor vehicle administration, etc.)? How should the technology be integrated into existing operations?
- Study the Effects of Different Alcohol Control Strategies, Including Taxes
Problem: Alcohol sales and access are controlled in many different ways. Each state has an alcohol control agency whose powers and practices vary widely (as just one example, some states sell alcohol through state stores while others license commercial retailers). Community alcohol control activities include zoning restrictions on alcohol outlets, alcohol sales licenses, dram shop and keg registration laws, and “Cops in Shops” and sting operations to prevent sales to minors. There is substantial opposition to any alcohol control activities, so good research is essential to determine the most effective strategies. Further, many alcohol control activities can demonstrate their effects most readily in terms of drunk driving.
Objective: This research should build on existing results to investigate the effects of different alcohol control strategies and determine how each strategy is best administered and enforced.