Study: Even "minimally buzzed" drivers are more often to blame for fatal car crashes

Published on January 17, 2014 at 12:16 AM · No Comments

Even "minimally buzzed" drivers are more often to blame for fatal car crashes than the sober drivers they collide with, reports a University of California, San Diego study of accidents in the United States.

Led by UC San Diego sociologist David Phillips and published in the British Medical Journal group's Injury Prevention, the study examined 570,731 fatal collisions, from 1994 to 2011.

The researchers used the official U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database for the study, because it is nationally comprehensive and because it reports on blood alcohol content (BAC) in increments of 0.01 percent. They focus particularly on "buzzed drivers," with BAC of 0.01 to 0.07 percent, and, within this group, the "minimally buzzed" (or BAC 0.01 percent).

Phillips and his co-authors find that drivers with BAC 0.01 percent - well below the U.S. legal limit of 0.08 - are 46 percent more likely to be officially and solely blamed by accident investigators than are the sober drivers they collide with.

The authors also find no "threshold effect" - "no sudden transition from blameless to blamed" at the legal limit for drunk driving. Instead, blame increases steadily and smoothly from BAC 0.01to 0.24 percent.

Despite this evidence, "buzzed" drivers are often not punished more severely than their sober counterparts. In practice, Phillips said, police, judges and the public at large treat BAC 0.08 percent as "a sharp, definitive, meaningful boundary," and do not impose severe penalties on those below the legal limit. That needs to change, Phillips said. "The law should reflect what official accident investigators are seeing."

The researchers measured blame by looking at more than 50 driver factors coded in the FARS database, including such "unambiguous" factors as driving through a red light or driving on the wrong side of the road.

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