25 Years After State's Landmark DUI Laws Are Enacted, Auto Club Analysis Reveals Mixed Picture

DUI Deaths Tick Sharply Upward in the Last Eight Years,
But Hundreds of Thousands of Deaths and Injuries Have Been Prevented Overall

(LOS ANGELES, Dec. 28, 2006) — January 1, 2007 marks the 25th anniversary of the date that several trend-setting, strict anti-DUI laws took effect in California. An analysis conducted by the Automobile Club of Southern California reveals that alcohol-related crashes have dropped sharply in the quarter-century after the laws took effect, but recent sharp increases in alcohol-related crash deaths are a cause for concern — and could be the result of an overall increase in aggressive driving among all California motorists.

Legislation taking effect in January 1982 toughened DUI penalties and created more consistent sentencing requirements for first-time and repeat offenders. The laws also strengthened the definition of DUI offenses to make sure offenders could not avoid punishment. The 1982 laws established California at the forefront of DUI enforcement in the United States. The state continued to crack down on DUI offenders in later years with further legislation, such as lowering the minimum blood-alcohol level for DUI from .10% to .08% and on-the-spot license suspension for drivers who fail or refuse a blood-alcohol test when stopped by law enforcement.

The Auto Club analyzed crash data from 1981 — just before the anti-DUI laws were enacted — through 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available. From 1981 through 2005, alcohol-related crash deaths dropped by 45 percent and injuries dropped by 58 percent. The reductions were achieved despite a growth of 43 percent in the number of licensed drivers and 105 percent in the number of vehicle miles traveled during that same time period.

In 1981, just before the laws took effect, more than 2,700 people died in alcohol-related crashes and 73,200 sustained injuries. By 2005, those numbers had dropped to 1,500 deaths and 30,800 injuries.

Even though safety innovations have reduced all traffic fatalities and injuries over the last 25 years, alcohol-related crash fatalities and injuries have dropped by a much greater percentage, said Steven Bloch, Ph.D., the Auto Club's senior research associate who analyzed the crash statistics. Alcohol-related fatalities as a percentage of all crash fatalities decreased by 34 percent from 1981 through 2005, while alcohol-related injuries as a percentage of all crash injuries decreased by 59 percent.

"Enforcement of California's 1982 DUI laws and education about the dangers of DUI appear to have played an important part in the sharp reduction in the drinking and driving level over the past quarter century," Bloch said. "It's stunning to realize that if the rate of alcohol-related crash victims had remained the same since 1981, nearly 200,000 additional people would have been either injured or killed in alcohol-related crashes in this state."

The Auto Club analysis also shows that after bottoming out in 1998, the alcohol-related crash fatality rate has risen sharply. Alcohol-related crash deaths rose 41 percent — from less than 1,100 deaths in 1998 to more than 1,500 fatalities in 2005. Alcohol-related injuries, on the other hand, dropped slightly (1 percent) from 1998 through 2005 — from nearly 31,000 to about 30,800.

Research has not yet established a definitive link showing what has caused the DUI crash deaths to rise so dramatically, especially when alcohol-related crash injuries remained relatively flat, Bloch said. However, Bloch's analysis showed one possible connection: between 1998 and 2005, the overall number of fatal crashes caused by excessive speed and/or following too closely has increased by 55 percent. Speeding and tailgating are two primary unsafe behaviors associated with aggressive driving, Bloch said.

Another theory that has not yet been proven is that after 25 years of anti-DUI education and messages, more drivers are choosing to ignore those messages and it has become more socially acceptable to drive after drinking.

"The Auto Club supports the decision of the California Highway Patrol to increase anti-DUI enforcement beginning this month in response to the increased number of DUI crash fatalities and injuries," Bloch said. "The crash data show that we need additional resources and new methods to once again begin reducing the number of these tragedies."

Key Provisions Of California Anti-DUI Laws That Took Effect Jan. 1, 1982

AB 7, AB 348, AB 541 and AB 542 required:

  • Mandatory minimum sentence requirements for all DUI offenders and enhanced minimum jail terms and other penalties for repeat offenders
  • Restrictions on plea bargaining of DUI charges
  • A blood-alcohol level of .10% alone (now .08%) is enough to obtain a DUI conviction
  • Abolishment of the practice of pre-conviction diversion to alcohol education programs in lieu of a DUI conviction
  • Issuance of restricted drivers' licenses to offenders (valid only for traveling to and from work and an alcohol-treatment program)

Victims Killed And Injured In California Crashes, 1981–2005

 1981 1998 2005