One In Five Americans Admits to Drinking and Driving

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RICK WILKING/Reuters/Corbis

Twenty percent of Americans 16 and older say that, in the past year, they have gotten behind the wheel within two hours of drinking alcohol. And about two thirds of them said they have done so in the previous month — suggesting that people who drink and drive do so regularly.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) polled 6,999 Americans to assess public attitudes about drinking and driving. The poll, taken in 2008, asked people about their behaviors in the previous 12 months, as well as about their perceptions of drunk-driving risk. Even though the vast majority of Americans claim that they never drink and drive — and even among people who do, most believe that they are not over the legal blood-alcohol limit when they get into the car — the government survey still suggests that a dangerous drunk-driving minority is out there on our roads. About 8% of all drivers said that they had driven in the last year when they knew they were already legally drunk. Furthermore, a small number of drinking drivers believed that they could drive safely after consuming as many as five drinks in two hours; whether or not they knew they were over the limit then, they probably were.

True to stereotype, most drinking drivers are male — about three quarters of them. Many are also young, with men aged 21-24 about five times as likely as the population at large to have been arrested in the last two years for driving under the influence, NHTSA reports. There is no doubt, however, that alcohol and cars are a potentially lethal mix. Alcohol is involved in about one third of all traffic accidents that result in injury — even though far less than one third of the population ever drinks and drives.