California's Sobering Facts & Statistics on Alcohol-Impaired Driving

Everyone knows the dangers of drunk driving. So why are so many Californians still getting behind the wheel while intoxicated? There’s no single reason someone chooses to drink and drive, but there is one definite truth to point to: far too many drivers in California continue to underestimate the dangers of driving while drunk. 

The state of California has a variety of penalties in place designed to harshly punish those who endanger others by choosing to drive drunk. Yet the statistics on California drunk driving show that tactics aimed at discouraging drunk driving aren’t working as effectively as they should. 

California Drunk Driving by the Numbers 

Drunk driving is a serious safety issue in California — and it comes with tragic implications. According to the CDC, California falls just below the national average for drunk driving. Nationally, the rate of adults who admitted to driving after drinking too much in the previous 30 days sits at 1.7%; California’s average is slightly lower at 1.5%.

However, the fact that California holds a marginally lower drunk driving rate than the national average shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the state is effectively cutting down on drunk driving. For instance, between the years 2009 and 2018, 9,288 people were killed on California roads due to drunk driving accidents.

Underage drunk driving in particular plagues California at the same rate as the rest of the nation. When alcohol-related fatalities are broken down by age category, California’s numbers continue to reflect the slightly lower rate in all categories by one: drivers under the age of 22. Underage drinking in California is exactly on par with the national rate. 

How California Discourages Drunk Driving 

As in other states, California uses the standard blood-alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08% to determine when it becomes illegal to operate a vehicle. However, BAC isn’t the only way to measure drunk driving. 

Indeed, a driver can be obviously inebriated even if their BAC is below 0.08%. Furthermore, California’s zero-tolerance law makes it so that drivers under the age of 21 aren’t allowed to have any amount of alcohol in their systems. 

California takes a strong stance against drunk driving. State laws make it legal to require an ignition interlock device for even first-time drunk driving convictions. Interlock devices require the driver to breathe into the device before their vehicle can start — typically requiring a BAC of 0.02% or less before they are allowed to drive. 

California also emphasizes alcohol assessment and treatment programs for convicted offenders. Between DWI courts, ignition interlock devices, and mandatory alcohol treatment programs, state laws are aimed at invention, reducing the likelihood that a convicted drunk driver becomes a repeat offender. 

Why Do Californians Drink and Drive?

Years ago, arranging for a ride after drinking too much was a real hassle, both in California and across the country. Today, the landscape has changed radically.

Cell phones make it possible to instantly call someone for a ride. And rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft allow you to get home for a reasonable price with just the push of a button. So the question remains: when it’s so easy to find an alternative, why are so many Californians still drinking and driving?

One study from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that social influence was a leading factor behind the decision to drive drunk. When social peers commonly engage in drinking and driving and fail to discourage it, the practice becomes normalized among friends in a group. 

Personal factors are the other most common reason identified by the NHTSA. Overconfidence, underestimating the level of intoxication, and a perception that one should be able to “handle” the amount of alcohol consumed are all common personal reasons that contribute to drunk driving in California. 

California Strategies to Reduce Drunk Driving Fatalities

Many drivers learn their lesson after a California DUI conviction. Yet penalties don’t always work effectively to discourage first-time offenders from taking to the roads. And given the rate of California’s fatal drunk-driving-related car accidents, too many drunk drivers don’t get a second chance. 

The state has measures in place to address this issue as well. Public sobriety checkpoints are legal in California. The purpose of public checkpoints is to identify drunk drivers on the road before their trip ends in a fatal crash. 

California also employs “high visibility saturation patrols.” These involve placing a strong police presence in areas where drivers are more likely to get behind the wheel while impaired.

In addition, the state emphasizes multi-component interventions. This strategy is designed to spread awareness of the risks of drunk driving and reduce attitudes that normalize the practice. 

Continuing to raise awareness of the serious risks associated with drunk driving is one of the best ways to continue cutting down on the rate of drunk driving in the state. Increased awareness can help individuals continue working toward making smart choices while drinking and can encourage friends to do the same. 

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