10 states with the harshest DUI penalties: Are laws having the desired effect?

August 10, 2016

It goes without saying that drunk driving is a very, very bad thing.

Though the number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol has fallen over the years, so has the total number of auto-related deaths. As a result, alcohol continues to play a role in 30 - 40 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities. In 2014, nearly 10,000 driver, passenger, and pedestrian deaths were linked to alcohol.

The question on everyone's mind is, "How do we solve this problem?" Many believe that tougher penalties for motorists found driving under the influence of booze can help reduce drunk-driving rates. But a comparison of states with the harshest DUI penalties and those with the most lenient reveals that it's not quite that simple.

The states with the most severe DUI penalties are:

1. Arizona
2. Georgia
3. Alaska
4. Oklahoma
5. Nebraska
6. Kansas
7. Connecticut
8. Utah
9. West Virginia
10. Texas

Arizona has the strictest drunk-driving laws in the nation, with no option to refuse sobriety tests, a minimum ten-day jail sentence for first-offenders, suspension of driver's licenses for at least 90 days, mandatory installation of ignition interlocks on drunk drivers' vehicles for 12 months, and more.

Those stiff penalties have paid off. Between 2005 and 2014, Arizona saw alcohol-related traffic deaths per 100,000 residents fall by 51.9 percent--far faster than the 31.5 percent drop recorded nationally during the same period. Among those younger than 21, the drop was even steeper: 71.8 percent, which was, again, more impressive than the national decline of 47.9 percent.

A couple of spots down the list, though, Alaska's drunk-driving rate has failed to keep up with the declines seen in the U.S. as a whole. While the country's fatality rate fell 31.5 percent, Alaska's lagged at 29.6 percent. 

At number four on the list, Oklahoma has managed to outpace other states for the population as a whole, but among younger drivers, fatalities fell 37.5 percent between 2005 and 2014, well below the national rate.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the chart, these nine states (and one district) had the most lenient DUI laws:

51. South Dakota
50. Washington, D.C.
49. North Dakota
48. Pennsylvania
47. Ohio
46. Vermont
45. Maryland
44. New Jersey
43. Michigan
42. Idaho

South Dakota has no mandatory jail sentence for either first-time or second-time offenders, no automatic impounding of a drunk-driver's vehicle, no mandatory installation of an ignition interlock, and no minimum fines for first or second arrests. 

And yet, South Dakota has outperformed the U.S. as a whole on drunk-driving fatality statistics. Among the total population of South Dakota, deaths fell by 40.1 percent between 2005 and 2014, and among drivers under 21, they dropped by 61.1 percent. That's compared to 31.5 percent and 47.9 percent, respectively, across the country.

Many of the other states at the bottom of the list fare similarly well--though it's worth mentioning that in North Dakota, rates actually increased.

What gives?

In all of this data, two of the most curious statistics are (1) the number of auto-related fatalities involving drivers with blood alcohol levels greater than .15, and (2) the number of fatal crashes involving repeat offenders with blood alcohol levels above and below .15.

In Arizona, the state with the toughest DUI laws, those figures remain on par with national stats: 74.4 percent of fatalities were caused by drivers with blood alcohol levels at or above .15 (nationally, the number is 71.6 percent). Among repeat drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents, 27.3 had blood alcohol levels of .14 or below, while the remaining 72.7 percent registered at .15 or above.

In South Dakota, however, 83.8 percent of fatalities involved a driver with blood alcohol levels of .15 or higher, well above the national average. Not surprisingly, 87.5 percent of repeat drunk drivers had blood alcohol levels at or above .15.

What this suggests is that while the number of drunk drivers may be declining--and devices like airbags and seatbelts are reducing the number of fatalities--the proportion of heavy and/or binge drinkers is actually increasing. That's especially true in states with lax DUI laws, particularly among of drivers 20 and younger, who are unfortunately more prone to accidents anyway because they have less experience behind the wheel.

Does this mean that DUI laws are useless? Not at all. But it does mean that states with tougher DUI laws may be doing a better job of discouraging the sort of heavy drinking that's keeping fatality rates high in states with laxer laws.

To see how your state ranks in terms of DUI laws, check out this handy chart. And for fatality stats, tap your state on this interactive map.

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