More than once an hour, someone is fatally injured in an accident involving an impaired driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite state laws and enforcement efforts, intoxicated drivers pose a serious threat to innocent drivers in Illinois, where Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that 279 lives were lost in alcohol-related accidents in 2011.
Research indicates that even drivers who are below the legal blood-alcohol content limit may be dangerously impaired. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a recommendation for all states to lower the legal BAC limit to .05. Government research suggests this measure could save between 500 and 800 lives every year.
Impairment at legal levels
According to the NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver performance is affected even at BAC levels below the legal limit. At a level of .05, drivers struggle with steering, perceiving depth, tracking motion and reacting to emergencies. These drivers are 39 percent more likely to be involved in accidents. A recent University of California, San Diego study found that even minimal BAC levels affect driving ability. Drivers with a BAC of .01 who were involved in accidents were 46 percent more likely to be solely blamed in official accident investigation reports.
Research supports a lower limit, but the NTSB does not have legal authority to change laws. Each state makes its own laws, and the federal government can give states incentive to change them. When the NTSB last recommended that the legal limit be lowered, almost two decades passed before every state complied. If Illinois does not change the legal limit, many Chicago drivers may continue drinking and driving legally but unsafely, putting other drivers at risk.
Recourse for accident victims
In Illinois, a person who is injured in an accident involving a drunk driver may hold that driver liable. Victims may seek compensation for medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering. The surviving family members of a fatally injured accident victim may seek damages through a wrongful death lawsuit. Under state Dram Shop laws, a third party who provided the alcohol or a place to drink may also be held liable for an accident.
In Illinois, an intoxicated driver is not automatically at fault in an accident. Illinois considers contributory fault and takes the actions of each driver into account. Victims are only awarded damages if they are less than 50 percent at fault, and compensation awarded may be reduced based on the amount of fault attributed to the victim. This means that, for the injured party, it is critical that accident circumstances are documented carefully, even if the accident involves an intoxicated driver.
The risks of drinking and driving have been extensively documented, but some drivers still persist in this reckless behavior. Even in Illinois, where DUI laws and enforcement efforts have earned a five-star rating from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, intoxicated drivers still pos
e a significant threat. In 2012, over one in three fatal Illinois auto accidents were alcohol-related,
according to MADD.
To avoid needless accidents, people who drink are encouraged to call cabs, use public transportation, spend the night somewhere safe or designate sober drivers. Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that a significant number of designated drivers fail to stay sober.
Dangerous designated drivers
In 2011, University of Florida researchers conducted a study of about 1,000 drivers. Researchers approached patrons leaving bars, surveyed those willing to participate and tested their blood-alcohol content with a Breathalyzer. The study found 35 percent of designated drivers had alcohol in their systems.
Researchers suggest this may happen because some people do not designate a driver before they start drinking. Instead, they decide who will drive later in the night, and the person who is least drunk or perceived as most successful at driving drunk is often selected. Widespread casual attitudes about the effects of “just one or two drinks” may also contribute to the problem.
The study found that the designated drivers who consumed alcohol were typically less drunk than their companions. Still, half of the designated drivers who did not abstain had a blood-alcohol content of at least .05. This BAC is the legal limit in many countries and the limit the National Transportation Safety Board recommended in 2013. Research has shown that crash involvement is 38 percent more likely for people with this blood-alcohol level than for sober drivers.
In July 2013, a tragic accident illustrated what can happen when designated drivers make irresponsible decisions. A 20-year old driver in Massachusetts lost control of his vehicle and hit a light pole, fatally injuring his passenger. Authorities found that the driver’s BAC was .11. He later admitted to drinking six beers and smoking marijuana before driving, despite being chosen as the designated driver.
The number of designated drivers who cause accidents after consuming alcohol is unknown. In Illinois, accidents involving alcohol claimed 279 lives in 2011 and 321 lives in 2012, according to the Century Council and MADD. The family members of these victims have the right to hold the negligent driver responsible through a wrongful death lawsuit. Similarly, accident victims who survive can file personal injury claims. These actions may not restore a person’s former quality of life, but the damages awarded can help offset the financial and less easily measured costs of the accident.