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Drinking & Driving: Immediate Removal of a Drivers License Saves Hundreds of Lives per Year

January 8, 2007
Alexander C. Wagenaar, Mildred M. Maldonado-Molina.
Alexander C. Wagenaar, Mildred M. Maldonado-Molina. (August 2007). Effects of drivers license suspension policies on alcohol-related crash involvement: long-term follow-up in forty-six states. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research (ACER). 31(8): 1399–1406.
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  • Alcohol-impaired driving continues to cause thousands of deaths per year.
  • New findings indicate that immediate suspension of a drivers license is a highly effective deterrence.
  • Timing appears to be even more important than the severity of the sanction: the quicker the better. 

Alcohol-impaired driving causes roughly 17,000 deaths per year, according to a 2006 study. While 46 states will suspend the driver’s licenses of those caught driving while impaired (DWI), nine states do not have immediate license-revocation laws. A new study has found that immediate suspension of a driver’s license upon failure of an alcohol breath test can reduce alcohol-related fatalities by approximately five percent, saving an estimated 800 lives each year. Results are published in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. “The threat of immediate suspension of the driver’s license is a larger deterrent than the threat of more severe penalties that may occur at a later date,” according to Alexander C. Wagenaar, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the College of Medicine at the University of Florida and the studys lead author. "Our results show these laws can reduce fatalities from car crashes involving light, moderate and heavy drinkers." And none too soon, according to James C. Fell, senior program director at the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation. “While substantial progress has been made over the past 25 years, alcohol-impaired driving is still a significant public-safety problem in the United States," he said. "The Wagenaar study is the most thorough and comprehensive one to date on license-suspension issues. Individual studies have shown that administrative license suspension (ALS) laws have been effective, but we were never sure about the criminal license-suspension laws. This study puts that issue to rest. The swift, sure nature of administrative laws can reduce drinking-driver fatal crashes and criminal-suspension laws have virtually no effect." Fell provided the example of toilet training an animal. "If you punish your dog two weeks after wetting the carpet, the behavior is not affected," he said. "If you punish a drunk driver six to 10 months after the crime, the behavior is not changed. If you suspend the license immediately, the connection is made and the behavior is affected (in most cases). Moreover, studies show that the highest rate of re-offense for drivers arrested for impaired driving occurs during the period immediately after their arrest and then declines over time. It is important to get them off the road immediately and not wait six to nine months until the trial occurs." Researchers looked at monthly, fatal alcohol-related car crashes from January 1976 through to December 2002 across all 46 states with ALS laws. They compared the effects of immediate license suspension with post-conviction license suspension. For measures, they used single-vehicle nighttime occurrence, as well as blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.01 - 0.07, 0.08 - 0.14, and BAC ≥ 0.15 g/dl. The study also accounted for differences across time and among states, including number of drivers, traffic levels, changing vehicle mix, auto safety standards, safety belt laws, and speed limit changes. “Laws that allow a police officer to immediately suspend the license of a driver who fails a breath test have a deterrent effect across the entire population," said Wagenaar. "This effect can be seen among individuals who have had just one or two drinks, among those who may have had a six-pack of beer, and among those who may have consumed a dozen or more drinks.” Fell wholeheartedly concurs. "This study proves beyond a doubt that the celerity of license sanctions is key," he said. "In other words, timing is more important than the severity of the sanction. It is an effective general deterrent because most people do not want to lose their driver’s license. They are dependent upon that license for their day-to-day life’s activities. The threat of losing that license if they test over the illegal BAC limit deters most of them from drinking and driving, or drinking too much and driving." Fell also praised the study for quantifying the effects of immediate license revocation. "A five-percent effect on fatal crashes is significant in traffic safety," he said. "It means that 150 lives could be saved each year if the nine states without ALS adopted such laws. Plus, the five-percent effect is conservative in that it only included drivers aged 21 and older in the analyses. ALS has been shown to also have a significant effect on drivers younger than 21, so even more lives could be saved if all states had ALS laws." Nine states still do not have immediate license-revocation laws: Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Tennessee. "All states should adopt ALS laws," said Fell. "A substantial number of drinking drivers ... know their chances of being caught are low, so they continue to do so. Many of these drivers are problem drinkers, many of them do not understand the safety implications of impaired driving, or many think that impaired driving is still somewhat acceptable. Even many convicted DWI offenders continue to drive because they believe there is little chance that they will be apprehended driving while suspended. The development, acceptance and implementation of future technologies that will make it impossible for a driver at or above a certain BAC limit to start his car (passive alcohol ignition interlock devices) is the ultimate answer to substantially reducing alcohol-impaired driving in the United States."