The United States (U.S.) Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released preliminary estimates of crash fatalities in 2020. According to the data, despite reduced driving last year due to the pandemic, deaths from road traffic crashes have increased. One of the major causes identified for this increase was driving under the influence of alcohol.

Americans have driven less in 2020 during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. Data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) show vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2020 decreased by about 430.2 billion miles – a 13.2% decrease. Despite this NHTSA’s early estimates show that an estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes. This is about a 7.2% increase and is the largest projected number of fatalities since 2007.

The NHTSA’s analysis shows the main causes for this increase in road traffic deaths were,

  1. impaired driving (under the influence of alcohol),
  2. speeding, and
  3. failure to wear a seat belt.
Rise in alcohol-related road traffic crashes in 2020
NHTSA reports there was a 9% increase in alcohol-related road traffic crashes, according to police reports of 2020.

During the coronavirus crisis the NHTSA compiled additional data from a wide variety of sources to enhance understanding of what was happening on the roadways during the pandemic. Their findings were published in a series of reports including: Early Estimates of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities and Fatality Rate by Sub-Categories in 2020 and Update to Special Reports on Traffic Safety During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: Fourth Quarter Data.

NHTSA research suggests that driving patterns and behaviors have changed significantly in the U.S. throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Unfortunately, driving patterns indicate increased risky behavior in 2020, including driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, speeding and failing to wear seat belts.

Alcohol harm in the United States

The U.S. was already suffering from a heavy alcohol burden pre-pandemic:

  • Alcohol use is the third leading cause of death in the U.S,
  • More people die from alcohol every year than from the entire opioid epidemic; and 
  • Alcohol accounts for more crime than all other drugs combined.

This heavy alcohol burden was further worsened during to the pandemic. Alcohol use in the U.S. increased during COVID-19, driven by pandemic centric marketing of the alcohol industry and weakening of state alcohol policies.

A groundbreaking report illustrates the problems and perils of weakening alcohol policy protections. The report details the lethal interaction of alcohol industry products and practices with the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Alcohol increases the health and societal problems arising from the pandemic. For example, alcohol weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to infections. And alcohol-centric social contexts have been COVID-19 super spreader events. The recent incident with spring breakers in Miami is one example
  2. Alcohol increases the burden on healthcare and emergency services which are already stretched due to the COVID-19.
  3. The alcohol industry exploits the pandemic to change alcohol laws to their benefit. According to a Movendi International analysis, the alcohol industry has pushed and succeeded in weakening alcohol laws including on alcohol delivery and alcohol take away in numerous states. These states include Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Vermont or Wisconsin.

Alcohol policy solutions need improvement

Regarding road safety the NHTSA report that President Biden’s American Jobs Plan would provide an additional $19 billion in vital funding to improve road safety for all users. In order to save citizens from the harm alcohol products cause, federal alcohol policies need to be improved.

As the World Health Organization reports, the United State’s rules for on/off premise sale of alcohol and regulations on sponsorship and promotion remain subnational meaning reliant on each state. The country has no regulations on advertising or product placement of alcohol. 

Even though excise taxes exist for alcohol, studies have proven they remain insufficient. A study from Boston University School of Public Health published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found inflation has reduced American alcohol tax rates by 70% since 1933. Despite this, in December 2019, the United States Congress extended the major tax break for the alcohol industry, losing billions of dollars in government revenue.

At the current state of alcohol policies, the country stands to loose many more lives. Alcohol policies need to be improved to avoid these preventable deaths, including from road traffic crashes.

Source Website: NHTSA