Drunk Driving Increased by Nearly 24 Percent in 2021, According to AAA

The American Automobile Association just released its annual report on dangerous driving, and it's full of scary news.

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A police officer speaks to the driver of a silver sedan at a DUI checkpoint in Escondido California on December 16, 2011
Police officers check drivers at a sobriety checkpoint in Escondido, Calif., in 2011.
Photo: AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, File (AP)

The American Automobile Association has released its annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, and the results aren’t great: In every category, Americans drove more dangerously in 2021 compared to the year prior. And the biggest rise in risky activity came in the form of drunk driving.

Researchers and journalists have shed a lot of digital ink on the massive increase in fatalities on U.S. roads in 2021. At least 42,915 people lost their lives in traffic collisions that year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—a 16 year high. While heavier vehicles with poor visibility are partially to blame (especially in vehicle vs. pedestrian collisions), factors like speeding, lack of seat belt, distracted or drowsy driving and inebriated driving all played a pivotal roll.

The AAA study, which the agency shared with Jalopnik, showed a 23.7-percent increase in the number of people “admitting to getting behind the wheel after drinking enough that they felt they were over the legal limit.” And that’s just the respondents who knew they were too drunk to drive: this 24-percent increase doesn’t include those who may have been unaware of the extent of their inebriation when they drove.

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In general, the number of Americans admitting to risky behavior behind the wheel has been falling for years. In 2020, only 5.9 percent of people who responded to the AAA survey admitted to driving while drunk, down from 10.9 percent in 2018. But that number is likely skewed: At the height of the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, there wasn’t a lot of driving going on. And even with lockdowns in 2020, drunk-driving fatalities rose 14 percent that year, to 11,654. NHTSA has yet to break down the data for last year’s crashes.

Drunk driving isn’t the only form of intoxicated driving on the rise. AAA recorded a 13.6 percent increase in drivers who admitted to getting behind the wheel within an hour of consuming cannabis. Drowsy driving rose 8.7 percent in 2021, while cell phone distraction was up 6.8 percent.

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It’s hard to say what, if anything, can be done to curb these risky behaviors. Traffic safety campaigns are criminally inefficient, but regulators and watchdog groups still depend on millions of dollars in billboards they hope will make a difference in driver behavior. Until we make some hard, potentially unpopular decisions to protect people over traffic and automakers, the slaughter on American roads will likely continue.