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The Dangers of Drunk Driving

The dangers of drunk driving include loss of life, physical injuries, legal penalties, revocation of one’s driver’s license, and severe emotional and psychological consequences.

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Driving while intoxicated is a serious offense with grave repercussions. Thousands of people are killed or wounded in drunk driving collisions each year. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 13,384 people lost their lives in a drunk driving accident in the U.S. in 2021, averaging out to about one person every 39 minutes.[1]

The statistics surrounding drunk driving are staggering, with numerous studies showing that driving under the influence dramatically increases the likelihood of being involved in a severe or fatal crash. While alcohol use disorder (AUD) is certainly a driving force behind the problem, binge drinking, and alcohol abuse also contribute to drunk and buzzed driving accidents. 

Drunk Driving Statistics

These statistics highlight the scope of drunk driving in the U.S.:

  • The cost of drunk driving deaths amounted to more than $123 billion in 2020. This included a cost estimate for the lives lost as well as medical expenses.[2]
  • In 2020, 229 children were killed in car crashes related to alcohol consumption.[3]
  • Every year, per statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, approximately 1 million people are arrested for drunk driving.[2]
  • About 31% of car crashes involve drivers with a BAC of at least 0.08%.[1] 

The Dangers of Drunk Driving in Statistics

In 2023, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a comprehensive report about motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021. Many of those statistics involved drunk driving. Here are key statistics from that report:[15]

  • Deaths due to alcohol-impaired driving rose 14% between 2020 and 2021.
  • Passenger cars were involved in 5,057 deaths due to alcohol in 2021.
  • SUVs were involved in 2,589 deaths due to alcohol in 2021.
  • Pickups were involved in 2,133 deaths due to alcohol in 2021.
  • Vans were involved in 270 deaths due to alcohol in 2021.
  • Motorcycles were involved in 1,727 deaths due to alcohol in 2021.
  • Large trucks were involved in 150 deaths due to alcohol in 2021.

In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration examined drunk driving by time of day. Researchers found that fatal crashes were more likely between midnight and 2 a.m.[16]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says drunk driving is especially risky for young people. Teen drivers have a much higher risk of being involved in a crash than older drivers at the same blood alcohol concentration, the CDC says.[2]

The CDC says the practice is more common among men. In 2020, 22% of male drivers involved in fatal car crashes were intoxicated compared to 16% of women.[2]

Understanding Blood Alcohol Content Levels & Driving

Different levels of blood alcohol content (BAC) have effects on your driving abilities. Even low levels of alcohol in the system can significantly alter cognitive processing and reaction times enough to render the driver incapable of driving safely. 

Here is what to expect from different BAC percentages:[1]

0.02%–0.03% BACAt this level, the drinker may feel a gentle wave of relaxation, and their eyesight may blur or become slightly unfocused. Decision-making skills are usually still sharp, and most people can handle multiple tasks at the same time.
0.05%–0.06% BACWith a higher BAC, drinkers are usually still relaxed, although their attention span decreases, and their reaction times slow. Coordination and tracking skills start to suffer. Handling the steering wheel and hitting the brakes will require a bit more effort.
0.08% BACThis is the legal limit for driving in the U.S. for people 21 and up. If your BAC is at this level, you cannot drive.

At this level, reasoning, concentration, and reaction times are significantly impaired. Drivers may experience reduced judgment, decreased perception, and impaired control over their vehicle.
0.1%–.12% BACAt this stage, substantial impairment of motor skills occurs. Coordination becomes difficult, and balance is affected, leading to more severe difficulties controlling the vehicle.
0.15% BAC & HigherAt these high levels, individuals may exhibit severe impairment. They will likely have blurred vision, slowed information processing, and weakened muscle control. Decision-making abilities and reaction times are significantly compromised, making driving extremely dangerous.

What Are the Dangers of Drunk Driving?

Everyone’s tolerance to alcohol is different, and even those who drink regularly can find that their tolerance and ability to function while drinking can shift significantly. It’s never safe to drive after drinking. Here are some of the associated dangers:[1-5]

Loss of Life

In 2021, more than 13,300 people died in accidents related to drunk driving. This includes drunk drivers, passengers, people in other vehicles on the road, and pedestrians. All of these deaths are wholly preventable.  


People involved in drunk driving accidents may survive, but they are often severely injured. Permanent and long-term injuries occur frequently, including paralysis and traumatic brain injury. Some people require lifetime care. 

Legal Penalties

Drunk driving is illegal at both the federal and state level. If you’re caught, you could face significant penalties that can stick with you for years.

Federal laws prohibit driving with a BAC of 0.08 grams per 100 mL of blood. If you’re caught driving drunk on federal lands (such as within an area operated by the National Park Service), you could face federal penalties like jail time.[17]

In most cases, states prosecute people for driving drunk. The National Conference of State Legislatures says common punishments for drunk driving convictions can include the following:[18]

  • Driver’s license suspensions
  • Imprisonment in a state or county jail
  • Vehicle confiscation
  • Interlock devices (which test your breath before the engine will start)
  • Substance abuse evaluations or treatment
  • Ongoing sobriety testing (which can involve testing multiple times per day at a designated site)

The Governors Highway Safety Association maintains an accurate listing of drunk driving penalties by state. (See it here to find out what would happen if you were caught in your state.) Highlights of state laws include the following:[19]

  • Forty-four states increase penalties for people convicted with a higher BAC.
  • Forty-eight states suspend licenses on the first offense.
  • All states have some type of interlock device program. In 27 states, such devices could be required for first-time offenders.
  • All states set BAC while driving at 0.08% or above as a crime. However, in Utah, the BAC is 0.05%.

Driving under the influence (DUI) comes with severe legal penalties, including high fines and jail time, depending on the severity of the charge. If you kill someone while driving drunk, you will likely be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, which is a felony. A first-time DUI with no associated crash can cost drivers more than $10,000 in legal fees and fines.

Emotional & Psychological Consequences

Survivors of drunk driving accidents and their loved ones bear a heavy burden of trauma, grief, and a profound sense of loss. Post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and shattered trust often persist, making it difficult to find solace and move forward. The consequences of impaired driving extend far beyond the physical.

Repeated DUIs

People who drink and drive often find themselves caught in a cycle of repeat DUIs or DWIs (driving while under the influence or intoxicated). According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost a third of people arrested for DWI are repeat offenders.[6]

Some people underestimate their level of impairment and overestimate their ability to drive safely. Despite the known risks of drunk driving, they rationalize that they aren’t that drunk. These drivers often don’t think they are taking any risk.[7] 

People struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD) are resistant to traditional deterrents to drunk driving, such as public health messages, police enforcement, sanctions, and educational programs aimed at deterring and addressing their behavior. They need comprehensive treatment for AUD to stop the cycle.

Is Drunk Driving a Sign of Addiction?

Drunk driving is often a sign of alcohol abuse or addiction, specifically AUD. When someone consistently gets behind the wheel while under the influence, it illustrates a troubled relationship with alcohol.  

Other signs of AUD, or alcohol addiction, include the following:[8-10]

  • Regular pattern of risk-taking behavior: Regularly taking the risk of driving under the influence reveals a lack of control and demonstrates that it’s not a one-off problem.
  • Increased tolerance: Needing to consume larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired intoxication level is a sign of developing tolerance, which can be an indicator of alcohol use disorder.
  • Failed attempts to quit or cut down: Persistent efforts to stop or reduce alcohol consumption but being unable to do so successfully is a warning sign of addiction and an indication that professional help is needed.
  • Obsession with alcohol: Obsessive thoughts about alcohol, making plans around whether or not alcohol will be involved, and an overwhelming desire to drink despite negative consequences are indications of potential addiction. 
  • Prioritizing alcohol above all else: Neglecting responsibilities in favor of alcohol use is a sign of addiction. This includes instances where individuals choose to drive under the influence despite knowing the potential risks and legal consequences.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

AUD is a complex condition where alcohol use is compulsive.[8] Despite the consequences that alcohol use brings to health, relationships, and life in general, the urge to drink persists. Someone with AUD will continue to drink despite negative results piling up in their life. 

AUD is a chronic condition, and there is no cure, but the condition can be effectively treated and managed.

Signs and symptoms of AUD include the following:[8,11-12]

  • Cravings or a strong desire to consume alcohol
  • Difficulty controlling or limiting alcohol intake
  • Continued drinking despite negative consequences or harmful effects on personal, social, or professional life
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol, requiring increasing amounts to achieve the desired effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to cut down or quit drinking
  • Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, consuming, or recovering from alcohol use
  • Neglecting or reducing participation in important activities and interests due to alcohol
  • Persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts to quit or cut back on alcohol
  • Continued alcohol use even when it leads to physical or psychological problems

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

If you or someone you know has repeatedly driven drunk, it’s important to get help immediately. The results of drunk driving can be severe, life-altering, and life-ending.[13,14] 

At Boca Recovery Center, we offer comprehensive treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction. We can help you to safely stop drinking, allowing alcohol to process out of your body in a safe and supported environment. We’ll then help you to begin to build a new life in recovery.

Contact us today to learn more. A better, healthier, and safer future awaits. 

Updated May 6, 2024
  1. Drunk driving. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Published January 11, 2019. Accessed October 5, 2023.
  2. Impaired driving: Get the facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 6, 2020. Accessed October 5, 2023.
  3. Traffic safety facts: 2020 data. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Published April 2022. Accessed October 5, 2023.
  4. Preventing drunk driving. Olson S, Gerstein DR. Alcohol in America: Taking Action to Prevent Abuse. Published 2001.
  5. Drunk driving victimization. The National Center for Victims of Crime. Accessed October 7, 2023.
  6. DOT HS 808 401 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Wiliszowski C, Murphy P, Jones R. 400 7th St.; 1996. Accessed October 2, 2023.
  7. Personality, executive control, and neurobiological characteristics associated with different forms of risky driving. Brown TG, Ouimet MC, Eldeb M, et al. PLOS ONE. 2016;11(2):e0150227.
  8. Alcohol use disorder (AUD). U.S. National Library of Medicine. Published 2019. Accessed October 8, 2023.
  9. Diagnosis and pharmacotherapy of alcohol use disorder. Kranzler HR, Soyka M. JAMA. 2018;320(8):815-824.
  10. Alcohol use disorder: Neurobiology and therapeutics. Yang W, Singla R, Maheshwari O, Fontaine CJ, Gil-Mohapel J. Biomedicines. 2022;10(5):1192.
  11. Understanding alcohol use disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.. Published 2020. Accessed October 4, 2023.
  12. Warning signs of substance and alcohol use disorder. Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program, Indian Health Service. Accessed October 7, 2023.
  13. Epidemiology and consequences of drinking and driving. Hingson R, Winter M. Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2003;27(1):63-78.
  14. Mortality-risk prediction model from road-traffic injury in drunk drivers: Machine learning approach. Sirikul W, Buawangpong N, Sapbamrer R, Siviroj P. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(19):10540.
  15. Overview of motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021. Stewart T. National Highway Traffic Safety Commission. Published April 2023. Accessed April 15, 2024.
  16. Time of day and demographic perspective of fatal alcohol-impaired-driving crashes. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Published August 2021. Accessed April 15, 2024.
  17. 36 CFR 4.23: Operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Cornell Law School. Accessed April 15, 2024.
  18. Drunken driving. National Conference of State Legislatures. Published March 27, 2024. Accessed April 15, 2024.
  19. Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Governors Highway Safety Association. Published March 2023. Accessed April 15, 2024.
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