Why Are Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths Being Underreported?

Doctors and medical examiners could do us all a huge favor by doing one simple thing. When alcohol is a factor in a traffic fatality, say so on the death certificate.

That’s the conclusion of a study published in March in the Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs. Researchers reviewed data culled from a National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) database which contains the blood alcohol levels for Americans killed in car crashes. They compared that information to the causes of death from traffic accidents as stated on death certificates throughout the U.S.

The results of this comparison were striking.

Between 1999 and 2009, only three percent of death certificates issued nationwide for traffic deaths listed alcohol as a contributing factor. However, the NHTSA database indicates that 21 percent of the 450,000 people killed in traffic accidents were legally drunk. That statistic is a wowzer, folks.

Why Such a Disparity?

Injuries are the number one cause of death for under-45 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, when those injuries are caused by a drunk driving accident, the influence of alcohol is often not mentioned on a death certificate.

Why? States are underreporting traffic deaths in which alcohol is a contributing cause. Well, not all states. Some are actually doing a very good job, according to the study. Iowa, Delaware, Minnesota and Kansas get a gold star for their efforts.

Others, such as Nevada, New Jersey, Maryland and New Hampshire, rarely mention alcohol on a death certificate. The reasons aren’t clear. Perhaps it’s because blood alcohol test results can take longer than the typical three to five days in which a death certificate must be issued. Maybe so, but that doesn’t explain why some states seem to have figured out how to get this done.

“Some states have been pretty successful,” said the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Ralph Hingson, who led the research team for this study. “What are they doing right?”

Indeed, that’s a good question.

Car flipped over after crash

Why Do We Care What a Death Certificate Says?

Death certificates are considered the primary source of mortality related information in the U.S. Accurately reporting causes of death in traffic fatalities is critical to efforts of policymakers and citizen groups who are working to implement more effective laws to deal with drunk driving.

“What we hope we would do is draw attention to this issue and have states work on developing the types of medical examiner systems and policies that would create more comprehensive testing so we could get a better picture of [what the] magnitude and trends of these problems are,” Hingson told FoxNews.

Surprisingly, about half of all states don’t require blood alcohol testing for drivers killed in accidents. That’s unfortunate, because we lose valuable information due to that policy. Of those states that do test, about 70 percent of deceased drivers end up actually being tested.

“We need to have a handle on what’s contributing to the leading cause of death among young people,” Hingson said in a press release. “You want to know how big the problem is, and if we can track it. Is it going up, or going down? And what policy measures are working?”

The key to obtaining accurate and complete cause-of-death data lies with medical examiners, coroners and physicians serving as death certifiers, the study concludes. In addition, the team asserts, Federal and state government agencies “should continue to encourage or perhaps start to require death certifiers to report alcohol involvement when it contributes to death.”

How can we hope to better prevent drunk driving if we don’t have a handle on how widespread the problem really is?

Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock


Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

A leopard cannot change his spots.

Lorna Wood
Lorna Wood3 years ago

I heard recently that opiate-related overdoses have now become the leading cause of death for young adults, surpassing traffic fatalities. Thank you, big pharma.

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobets3 years ago


Teresa W.
Teresa W3 years ago

Nina, have you ever heard of the Prohibition? Google it! Only the Mafia got rich by smuggling alcohol into the US, but it didn't solve drinking-related problems.

ROLF P3 years ago

Brilliant!!!!! so now the poor citizen that gets killed by a drunk driver will have it on his Death Certificate. Clearly STUPID DOES STUPID!.

Angela Ray
Angela Ray3 years ago

Why is alcohol legal but not marijuana?

Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

They should not be under-reported as far as I'm concerned. People need more tough love when appropriate and less enabling when they're alive. Just maybe it will wake up at least a few people to act more responsibly in the first place before it kills them and serve as a sobering reminder for others as well. The same should go for yakking on cell phones and texting while driving, or trying to scarf down that double bacon cheeseburger while behind the wheel, etc., etc....

william Miller
william Miller3 years ago


John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

I'm more than a little surprised to find out that Kansas is doing something right.

kathrynelizabet Etier

The awful shame of this is that people don't understand how serious drunk driving is. If we don't know how bad something might be, we tend to minimize its effects on us.