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Drunk Driving Traffic Deaths are often Underreported, Study Claims

Update Date: Mar 25, 2014 10:50 AM EDT

Driving under the influence creates an extremely dangerous situation for other drivers, passengers and pedestrians. Due to the risks involved, numerous federal and statewide programs have been created to discouraged drivers from getting behind the wheel after drinking. In a new study, researchers examined the dangers of drunk driving in more depth. They discovered that the role of alcohol in traffic deaths within the United States is often underreported on death certificates.

In this study, the research team, headed by Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, worked with I-Jen Castle, Ph.D. in examining traffic deaths. They analyzed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database known as the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). This system provided information on the blood alcohol content of the people killed in traffic crashes. Roughly 70 percent of all drivers throughout the country are tested for blood alcohol levels after an accident.

The researchers discovered that from 1999 to 2009, death certificates did not accurately represent the role that alcohol played in these traffic deaths. The researchers calculated that a little over three percent of the death certificates had listed alcohol as a contributing cause of death. However, the statistics provided by FARS suggest that 21 percent of the deaths was tied to alcohol use.

The team found that this discrepancy was most prevalent in Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. On the other hand, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota tended to acknowledge the factor of alcohol in the death certificates more often.

The researchers did not identify why these differences occurred between the states. However, they reasoned that since blood alcohol tests can take a while to come back from the lab, some coroners or medical examiners might not have that information available by the time they have to file a death certificate. The researchers believe that if more states mandated these tests on blood alcohol levels and waited for the results, the numbers would better represent the deadly effects of driving while intoxicated.

The study was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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