Risk attributable to drunk drivers

Drunk driving is dangerous, but…

Drunk driving and distracted driving are dangerous, and particularly dangerous for young and inexperienced drivers.

However, the reality of road safety today is that that most of the public risk of driving that we incur is due to driving sober, not drunk.  Driving drunk is more dangerous than driving sober, but since most people are not driving drunk these days, fatalities that do occur are more often caused by sober drivers.

Here is a table from a study done a long time ago on the subject

Source Evans, L. (1990). The fraction of traffic fatalities attributable to alcohol. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 22(6), 587-602.

What this table shows is that drunk driving is responsible for the majority of one vehicle fatalities, probably involving the death of the drunk driver.  However, the majority of multi-vehicle collisions involving a fatality are caused by sober drivers.

Driving drunk is dangerous (this can’t be said often enough), however, even as far back as 1990 (when drunk driving was more common) it did not make up for the majority of fatalities on the road, particularly when multiple vehicles are involved.  The majority of fatalities were caused by sober drivers.

What this means

Advocacy against drunk driving is important and makes our roads safer, but should not distract from the a fundamental reality: driving is dangerous.  Our decisions to drive, and to build cities focused on motorized transport have an impact beyond the decisions of individual drivers, and we are all participants in this system.

We need to remember that the risks of driving are systemic, and part of our collective decision to live in a motor-vehicle centred world.  A drunk driver is legally culpable for the consequences of driving drunk, but we are all at least somewhat morally culpable for this system of transportation that causes death.  If we are uncomfortable with traffic fatalities, we need to rethink our transportation system as a whole.  Perhaps autonomous vehicles can help?  Or a rethink on private motor vehicles altogether?  But what is clear is that we can’t pretend that all the consequences are entirely the result of poor decisions made by a small subset of individuals.  We all have a share in the blame.