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Making Sense of the NUMBERs

Alcohol, Traffic Fatalities, and Statistics

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You may have seen the electronic road signs above and along Minnesota freeways displaying quirky, attention-grabbing messages such as “Don’t Be a Turkey – Buckle Up” and “Santa Sees You When You’re Speeding.” They are often lighthearted, cheeky, reminders for motorists to slow down, pay attention, and drive sober.

The signs are maintained by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) and new messages appear weekly.

Not long ago, MNDOT displayed a message with a more somber tone, claiming that DWI offenders are responsible for one in four traffic fatalities. MNDOT likely borrowed this statistic from the Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), a division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS). The OTS is responsible for compiling statewide statistical traffic crash data and producing annual reports after reviewing the data.

These reports are used by legislators and policymakers, among others, to set budgets, introduce and implement new laws and determine where to best allocate public safety and road improvement resources. Accordingly, it is important that the information contained in these reports is accurate.

In calculating the number of deaths that can be attributed to drunk drivers, we must first consider what definitions are being used by the OTS in compiling the statistical data.

“Alcohol-related” crashes and fatalities

If any driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist involved in a fatal traffic crash has an alcohol concentration of .01% or higher, the OTS defines the crash and the fatality as “alcohol-related.” Moreover, if there is no alcohol concentration test administered but the officer reports that he or she believes that any person involved in the accident had been drinking, then the crash is also classified as alcohol related.  Under this definition, once the crash is categorized as alcohol-related, every fatality resulting from the crash is categorized as alcohol related.

“Impaired-related” crashes and fatalities

Similarly, if any driver, pedestrian or bicyclist involved in a fatal crash has an alcohol concentration of .08% or higher, the OTS defines the crash and the fatality as “impaired-related.” Unlike the alcohol-related category, a test result of .08% or more is necessary in order for this definition to apply.

“Drunk driving-related” crashes and fatalities

The OTS defines a motor vehicle crash as “drunk driving-related” only if a driver had an alcohol concentration of .08% or more at the time of the crash or shortly thereafter. Unlike the alcohol-related category, pedestrians and bicyclists are excluded from this definition. Also, the OTS will not include crashes where a test has not been taken, regardless of whether the officer believed a driver was intoxicated. Once the OTS categorizes a crash as drunk driving-related, every fatality in the crash classified, every fatality in the crash by definition is also drunk driving- related.

The ‘devil’ in the details

While the OTS attaches separate labels to roadway crashes and fatalities involving alcohol for statistical purposes, none of these statistics tabulate how many alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by drunk drivers.

For example, if the pedestrian is lying unconscious on a roadway and is run over and killed by a sober driver, the OTS will classify the death as an “alcohol-related” traffic fatality if the pedestrian consumed any alcohol (or “impaired-related” if found to have an alcohol concentration of .08% or more). The OTS has reported as many as ten pedestrian deaths in a calendar year killed in separate incidents involving non-drinking drivers.

Similarly, if a drunk driver is killed by a sober driver driving the wrong way on the freeway in a head-on collision, the OTS will categorize the death as “drunk-driving related” even if the driver with a .08% alcohol concentration did nothing to cause the accident.  

Regardless of whether the fatality is reported as “alcohol-related” or “drunk-driving related,” a casual observer might reasonably assume that the death was the result of a crash caused by a drunk driver. While reasonable, the assumption is not always correct.

In a recent report, the OTS stated that while this assumption is “almost always” true according to unnamed “experts”, “…it is important to recognize that the assumption is not invariably true.”

In 2018 (the most recent year for which complete statistical data has been compiled by the OTS) there were 381 traffic deaths in Minnesota.

Of these, 123 (32 percent of the total) were categorized as “alcohol-related” where at least one driver, pedestrian or bicyclist was suspected to be drinking or tested at .01% or more.

Of these, 96 (25 percent of the total) were determined to be “impaired-related” having at least one driver, pedestrian or bicyclist tested at .08% or more).

And of these 84 (22 percent of the total) were listed as “drunk driving-related” because one driver was determined to have an alcohol concentration of .08% or more.

And while highway deaths involving drunk drivers on Minnesota roads in 2018 made up less than 25 percent of the total number, the OTS provides no data to show what percentage of these cases were caused by drunk drivers.

Even if all 84 “drunk driving-related” deaths from 2018 were ‘caused’ by impaired drivers, it is important to consider which factors other than alcohol may have contributed to or actually caused the fatal accident.

For both impaired and sober drivers alike, fatal crashes most often occur when one or more of the following factors are present: distracted driving (including cell phone use), speeding, fatigue, drug use (both legal and illegal), no safety belt, driver inexperience, weather conditions, road rage, poor signage and dimly lit roadways.

Considering that at least 75 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in Minnesota do not involve alcohol, it is important that the number of deaths attributed to drunk driving be accurately tabulated and correctly reported.

Overestimating drunk driving fatalities can hinder public safety efforts if the numbers divert attention away from other forms of dangerous driving responsible for the remaining three-quarters of all traffic fatalities statewide. 

Or, as motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “You can’t hit a target you cannot see, and you cannot see a target you do not have.”

If you find yourself facing criminal charges involving DWI, OWI, or CVO (criminal vehicular injury or death) and need to explore your options for getting your driving privileges restored, our seasoned lawyers can help. Attorneys are available 24-7 — Call us at 612-334-3342.

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