FRIDAY, Dec. 28 (HealthScoutNews) -- If you're thinking about hitting the road after overdosing on New Year's champagne, consider this: Drunken drivers are 13 times more likely to kill someone than an average sober driver, says a new study.
"Thirteen times may be less dangerous than some people might have thought, but a drunken driver who takes a five-mile trip exposes other people to as much risk as a sober driver who drives for 65 miles," says Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study into the risks of mixing alcohol and driving.
Even so, a drunken driver faces a very small chance of getting into a fatal accident -- an estimated one chance in 5 million for each mile driven, Levitt says.
While public awareness of drunken driving has grown over the last two decades, 16,653 people died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 2000. That's 40 percent of all traffic deaths, according to federal figures.
Levitt and colleague Jack Porter, a Harvard University economics professor, examined reports of automobile fatalities from 1983 to 1993 compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. They looked at all cases of suspected or confirmed drunken driving, not just those in which the drivers had a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent or more. (A more restrictive legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 was unusual at that time, though more than 20 states have adopted it since.)
Applying mathematical formulas more commonly used to study economics, the professors examined the numbers of crashes involving two drunken people, a drunken person and a sober person, or two sober people. Levitt says the formulas gave researchers a "new, cheap way" to estimate how many drunken drivers are on the road and how dangerous they are.
The findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of Political Economy.
"Many of our basic intuitions or beliefs were held to be true," he says. "Drunk drivers are substantially more dangerous than sober drivers, and drivers who have been involved in previous crashes or had their licenses revoked are much more dangerous than others on the road."
Experts already know that the peak hours for drunken driving are between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., when bars close in many states and when as many as one in four drivers may be drunk. Levitt found that drunken drivers caused about 60 percent of fatal crashes during those hours.
The researchers also found that fatality rates were lower in states that were tough on repeat offenders. Levitt says those states made drunken drivers less dangerous "either by taking the most dangerous drivers off the road or possibly by making those drivers use more care, by not driving drunk or perhaps driving more carefully."
What To Do
Learn about drunken driving statistics for your state and gender from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.