Summer time is in full swing!!! The time of year when sweaters and snow boots are traded for bathing suits and flip flops, grills everywhere are slow roasting delicious barbecue and the beach becomes your second home. Unfortunately, this is also one time of year when driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol is most prevalent. We all know the classic scenario: someone is leaving a 4th of July party or bar after one too many Coronas and chooses to get behind the wheel of a car putting themselves, their passengers and other drivers in grave danger. However, what most people don’t consider is that it’s not only the “reckless” drunk and drugged drivers coming out in the dark of night that we need to worry about on our roads. Many other DUI offenses are occurring at astonishing rates. Seniors, unknowingly being impaired while driving because they were not adequately informed about the side effects of their prescribed medication. A parent having one glass of wine before going to pick up their children, not realizing that that one glass is really like having four glasses when combined with the pain medication already in their system. While these examples are not necessarily the majority of DUI crashes and fatalities, we also need to be aware of these less publicized instances of impaired driving. So the question becomes, how can we make conscientious choices about drinking, legal/prescription drug use and driving? The first step is being informed about what you are taking, how much and how it will affect you and any other substances you may have in your system. The second is to better understand what motivates people to drive while intoxicated or impaired so we can better protect ourselves.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (2015) reports that every two minutes a person is injured in a drunk driving crash and that on average two out of every three people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime. This is not that surprising considering that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that first time DUI offenders, meaning those that have been caught, have driven drunk at least 80 times before their first arrest (MADD, 2015). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that more than 159 million DUI (both alcohol and drugs) incidents occur each year nationally and that two people die each hour from crashes that involve alcohol (Porter, 2011). Alcohol alone is the largest contributing factor in fatal crashes. The national standard for a person to be considered legally drunk is to have blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%. This is a measurement of the weight of alcohol in a certain volume of blood and this can vary from person to person. Various sources including the American Medical Association and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have determined that the average person with a BAC of 0.08% will experience poor muscle coordination, reasoning, self-control and judgment. Amphetamines, such as ADHD medication or Percocet, have been known to encourage risk-taking behavior in people while other drugs like marijuana and benzodiazepines (i.e. Xanax and Valium) can severely reduce a person’s reaction times (Porter, 2011). How this translates into driving ability is an impairment to speed control, perception, concentration and their ability to process information, all of which are vital to the safe operation of a motor vehicle.*
- There were 6,142 DUI related crashes in Connecticut from 2011-2013; this is a 5.6% decrease from the three previous years.
- Of those crashes, 94% involved an operator or pedestrian who was under the influence of alcohol
- Another 3.5% involved an operator or pedestrian who was under the influence of alcohol AND drugs
- There were 350 DUI related fatalities that occurred; this accounts for 21% of all crash fatalities in the state
- Males drivers account for 4,503 of the DUI crashes; Female drivers account for 1,624
- When broken down by age and gender, 21 year old Males and 23 year old Females account for the greatest number of DUI related crashes with a total of 213 crashes for Males and 89 for Females
- A large majority of crashes are occurring between the hours of 11PM – 2AM on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
- Over half of the crashes involved only one vehicle, the majority of which were a collision with a fixed object (i.e. tree, guardrail, mailbox, etc.)
*All data from the Crash Data Repository is subject to the information available on the PR-1 crash report, which is collected by law enforcement at the scene of a motor vehicle collision.
Why do people still drive while intoxicated even though they know the risks?
The same way every person is unique and different in some way, so are the motives for their behavior. Extensive research has been conducted to try and identify correlations between specific personality traits and impaired driving and risk taking behavior in general. While I have highlighted a small group of DUI offenders who unknowingly drive while severely impaired, the reality is the majority are repeat offenders. These individuals either have not been caught yet or are still continuing to drink and drive despite multiple citations or arrests. Several personality traits have been cited to be predictive of impaired driving and one of the most frequently studied traits is sensation seeking. Research has shown that the sensation seeking personality trait is commonly found in repeat DUI offenders. Developed in 1971 by Psychology professor Marvin Zuckerman, PhD, sensation seeking is defined as “the pursuit of novel, diverse and extreme experiences” (Porter, 2011). Zuckerman categorizes the trait into the following four subscales:
- thrill/adventure seeking – desire to engage in risky physical activities “that involve speed or danger” (Hittner and Swickert, 2006)
- i.e. cliff jumping, sky diving, downhill skiing
- boredom susceptibility – strong aversion to anything mundane or routine
- i.e. difficulty maintaining long-term relationships however often successful in ever-changing professional environments such as an actor or police officer
- disinhibition – reduced social restraint and prone to more experimental behavior
- i.e. excessive gambling, illicit drug use, having many sexual partners
- experience seeking – desire to engage in new personal/inner experiences
- i.e. traveling to exotic locations, learning a new philosophy or religion
Those who have been found to have a high score on sensation seeking measurement scales, have also been found to consume alcohol more often and in larger quantities than most people. They also tend to drive faster and be involved in a greater number of crashes. I want to emphasize that this DOES NOT mean that everyone with one or more of these characteristics are driving drunk or drugged but many people who are charged or convicted of DUIs are often found to possess this trait. It’s the same notion as most serial killers are Male but not all Males are serial killers.
Researcher Christopher Munsey explains the theory further, “Zuckerman emphasizes that high sensation-seeking is a normal personality trait, despite its association with risky behavior” (2006). Individuals who are drawn to high stress jobs, like law enforcement or ER doctors, are said to rank high on sensation seeking scales, however this trait is desirable and positive in these occupational roles. It is also important to note that sensation seeking has a strong correlation with the developmental process and age. Research has found that this personality trait seems to peak in late adolescence and starts to decline as a person gets older. Other personality traits that have often been linked to repeat DUI offenses include low educational attainment, lack of realistic risk perception, neuroticism, impulsivity and fearlessness. In addition to the identification of the sensation seeking trait, studies have found that even when accounting for demographics and the age when drinking began, college students are more likely than their non-college peers to drink and drive. Of those who do, males, self-identified heavy drinkers, and those with a family history of alcohol abuse stood out specifically. There is increased risk with heavy drinkers because they have developed a tolerance and therefore may not “feel” as intoxicated as their BACs indicate they are (LaBrie et al., 2011).
What is my state doing to lessen DUI offenses?
Connecticut has adopted a new law concerning DUI offenses that went into effect on July 1st, 2015. MADD (2015) issued a press release stating that the law, whose bill was passed unanimously by the Connecticut Legislature and signed into law by Governor Dannel P. Malloy on June 13, 2014, “may effect up to 6,500 first time offenders”. Under this new legislation, ANY person who has been charged with a DUI will have their license suspended for a minimum of 45 days and will be required to install an ignition interlock device (IID) in their vehicle (aka a Breathalyzer). The IID requires drivers to blow into a tube in order to start their vehicle. If your blood alcohol level (BAC) is over 0.25, your car will not start and the IID also requires random breath samples throughout operation of the vehicle. Drivers are also required to provide what’s called ‘a running retest’ periodically during the operation of the vehicle. The device will give the driver a few minutes to pull over in order to perform the retest safely. If the test is failed while the car is running, the vehicle will not stop, instead the “horn will honk and/or the lights will flash to alert law enforcement” (MADD, 2015).
This may be a little confusing, as it is widely known that Connecticut made the ignition interlock device a requirement for drivers convicted of DUI back in 2011. However, this is significant because this law is now mandatory for first time offenders, not just repeat offenders. This means that DUI counseling programs can no longer be used as a get out of jail free card for those charged with a DUI. The length of time the IID must be installed is dependent upon a few factors such as the driver’s age during the time of the offense, prior DUI offenses, the results of their blood alcohol test and/or whether they refused to take the test at all. Ignition interlocks have been found to be effective in lowering the number of repeat DUI offenses, even after the device is removed. Also, the general public is in favor of IIDs for all convicted drunk drivers, with over 75% indicating their support of the device. This new law is a huge step forward in trying to minimize and hopefully eliminate DUI offenses. For additional information about Connecticut’s drunk driving laws, please visit www.ct.gov/dmv and for additional information about the ignition interlocks, please visit www.madd.org/interlock.
*This information refers to the BAC level at which the effect usually is first observed, and has been gathered from a variety of sources including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the American Medical Association, the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, and www.webMD.com
Sources: Personality and Individual Difference, Issue 7, Vol 33, Nov 2002; New Britain Herald, 2015; WTNH Connecticut News, 2015; State of Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles, 2015; http://www.madd.org/drunk-driving/about/drunk-driving-statistics.html; LaBrie, J.W., Kenney, S.R., Mirza, T., and A. Lac, 2011. “Identifying factors that increase the likelihood of driving after drinking among college students.” Accident Analysis and Prevention 43, 1371-1377; Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), 2015 Press Release, “MADD Hosts Interlock Demonstration”; Houston, D.J. and L.E. Richardson, Jr., 2004. “Drinking and Driving in America: A Test of Behavioral Assumptions Underlying Public Policy.” Political Research Quarterly 57 (1), 53-64; Munsey, C., 2006 “Frisky, but more risky.” American Psychological Association 37 (7), 40; Hittner, J.B and R. Swickert, 2006. “Sensation Seeking and Alcohol use: A Meta-analytic Review.” Addictive Behaviors (31) 1383-1401; Porter, B. (2011). Handbook of Traffic Psychology. London, UK: Elsevier, Inc.
Photo credits: https://www.freedomsphoenix.com/News/117349-2012-08-23-ryan-crocker-former-ambassador-charged-with-dui-leaving-the-scene.htm; http://www.losangelesduiattorneyblog.com/2013/01/a_los_angeles_dui_defense_atto.html; http://carcrashtodo.blogspot.com/2014/11/dui-car-crash-photos.html; funnytimes.com; http://bianchilawgroup.com/guilty-dui-ordered-install-ignitioninterlockdevice/; http://www.leoaffairs.com/tech/connecticut-passes-law-requiring-ignition-interlock-first-time-dui-offenders/