Alcohol fueled road deaths

United States

Every day in the United States, 28 people die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. This means one death every 51 minutes. The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes amounts to more than $44 billion. Therefor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines “Reducing the illegal Blood Alcohol Concentration threshold to 0.05%” as an important step to be explored to better prevent deaths and injuries from alcohol-impaired driving.


Also in Canada, driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs (DUI) remains the most prominent factor contributing to serious road crashes. DUI claims nearly twice as many lives each year in Canada as all forms of homicide combined. In the 13-year period from 2000 through 2012, it was estimated over 10,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents involving a driver who had consumed alcohol. Road traffic accidents involving alcohol are the leading criminal cause of death. On average, about 4 people die each day in accidents involving an impaired driver.

This death toll is substantially lower compared to the Canada’s southern neighbor. But it is still too high, because these deaths are entirely  preventable. The difference between the United States and Canada is how the countries regulate the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). In the United States, the BAC limit is 0.08%. In Canada, the Criminal Code also stipulates 0.08% but most provinces and territories have enacted legislation to supplement the provisions of the Criminal Code. These laws typically impose immediate short-term licence suspensions (24 hours up to 30 days) for drivers with a BAC of 0.05%. Currently, Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada that has no sanctions in place for drivers who register a 0.05% BAC level.

It means that lowering the BAC limit is a smart policy move. Science and public health activists would say so. And many politicians, like Canada’s Minister of Justice. The alcohol industry, however, has a different view.

Lowering the BAC limit on national level

Federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has recently announced she is considering lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.05%. Given the current levels of harm and deaths that can be prevented, availability of better research and the legislative situation in the vast majority of Canadian jurisdictions, justice minister Wilson-Raybould wrote a letter to her provincial and territorial counterparts exploring the policy development.

The purpose of the policy change is to better respond to the danger posed by impaired drivers and to send a strong message through the criminal law and changing drivers’ behavior.

Evidence shows that the risk of being involved in a car crash was twice as likely when a driver had 0.08% of BAC.

More recent research indicates that this data underestimated the fatal crash risk,” Federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said.

In fact, the risk is almost double at 50mg, almost triple at 80mg, and rises exponentially above that level.”

Romantic Dinners Or Road Safety?

Independent research is clear about limiting the blood alcohol concentration: Lowering the BAC limit for driving from 0.08% to 0.05% hold substantial potential to reduce the number of people who drive under the influence of alcohol and get involved in fatal crashes.

We also know that there is strong evidence that someone’s ability to drive is affected if they have any alcohol in their blood.

  • Drivers with a BAC of between 0.02 and 0.05 have at least a three times greater risk of dying in a vehicle crash.
  • This risk increases to at least six times with a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08, and to 11 times with a BAC between 0.08 and 0.10.

But the alcohol industry in Quebec does not care for any of this. In fact, they have gone bonkers over the idea that the BAC limit would be reduced in Quebec.

And I think, alcohol industry reactions are both revealing their ignorance of scientific data and their apparent willingness to make up counter-arguments.

Restaurants Canada executive vice president Joyce Reynolds, for instance, claimed that lowering the BAC limit would not reduce the numbers of accidents and deaths on the road. She continued, per CBC:

We want to see dangerous offenders off the roads as much as anyone else does. We take seriously our role on preventing drunk driving.

We want to see those that are causing those accidents off the roads, but what we want to do is to be able to help consumers understand what causes impairment so that they feel comfortable having a glass of wine when they go out for dinner.”

The alcohol industry has a track record of dishonesty and spreading doubt about science and policy. In this particular case the made-up character of the counter-argument is laid bare. While the Restaurants Canada executive claimed that people would not feel comfortable anymore to have a glass of wine, she is contradicted by her colleague Francois Meunier, the spokesman for Quebec’s restaurant lobby.

The (change would) mean a woman can have one drink and a man, in most cases, two,” Meunier said, according to the Huffington Post.

Forget about a bottle of wine for two, for a Valentine’s Day dinner — that’s over.”

Dangerous drivers off the road?

So, it’s not really about that one glass of wine, but about a bottle or two.

And it’s not about caring for road safety either. Quebec’s restaurant lobby claims the classic romantic date is in danger of disappearing and that lowering the BAC limit would be a disaster for the restaurant industry — and for lovers.

In light of arguments like this, I’d like to repeat what science shows:

  1. Someone’s ability to drive is affected if they have any alcohol in their blood.
  2. Drivers with a BAC of between 0.02 and 0.05 have at least a three times greater risk of dying in a vehicle crash.
  3. This risk increases to at least six times with a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08, and to 11 times with a BAC between 0.08 and 0.10.

It means Mrs Reynolds’ talking point is also proven hot air. I wonder: who are “those that are causing those accidents” in the minds of alcohol industry executives actually?

The alcohol industry constantly engages in downplaying risks and creating myths that it’s always someone else, someone “dangerous” – rhetoric that dilutes scientific evidence and casts doubt on public perceptions of alcohol-related harm.

I also wonder: what does it mean for the alcohol industry when they claim to be serious about their role to prevent impaired driving?

If they are serious, they’d support a measure that has been proven to save lives. If they are serious, they’d put saving lives over securing profits.

But they are not serious. And so plans for a measure to improve road safety become an attack on romance and Valentine’s Day in the world of Big Alcohol.

Bonkers. Irresponsible. And dangerous.

For further reading:

Impaired Driving in Canada, Fact sheet, Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction, March 2017

Effects of introducing an administrative .05% blood alcohol concentration limit on law enforcement patterns and alcohol-related collisions in Canada
Blais É, Bellavance F, Marcil A, Carnis L, in: Accid Anal Prev. 2015 Sep;82:101-11. doi: 10.1016/j.aap.2015.04.038. Epub 2015 Jun 9.

Fell JC, Voas RB. The effectiveness of a 0.05 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving in the United States. Addiction (Abingdon, England). 2014;109(6):869-874. doi:10.1111/add.12365.

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