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Trends in Alcohol-Related Traffic Fatalities, by Sex -- United States, 1982-1990

For 1990, the number of traffic fatalities (44,529) reported in the United States was the lowest number reported since 1985 (1). However, limited studies appear to indicate that the proportion of female drivers involved in fatal crashes and the proportion arrested for driving while intoxicated may be increasing (2-4). This report summarizes data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Fatal Accident Reporting System on trends in alcohol-related traffic fatalities (ARTFs) among females and males in the United States from 1982 through 1990. In addition, a quarterly table (page 199 of this issue) presents data on alcohol involvement in fatal motor-vehicle crashes in the United States for January-March 1991.

A fatal traffic crash is considered alcohol-related by NHTSA if either a driver or nonoccupant (e.g., a pedestrian) had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) greater than or equal to 0.01 g/dL in a traffic crash reported to police. NHTSA defines a BAC greater than or equal to 0.01 g/dL but less than 0.10 g/dL as indicating a low level of alcohol and a BAC greater than or equal to 0.10 g/dL (the legal level of intoxication in most states) as indicating intoxication. Because BAC levels are not available for all persons involved in fatal crashes, NHTSA estimates the number of ARTFs based on a discriminant analysis of information from all cases for which driver or nonoccupant BAC data are available (5). In this report, "alcohol-involved" refers to drivers with a BAC greater than or equal to 0.01 g/dL. Data on drivers refer only to drivers involved in fatal crashes. Data on sex are reported only for persons for whom sex is known (greater than 98%).

Compared with 1982, the total number of fatalities in 1990 was 13% higher among females and 3% lower among males (Table 1). The increase in fatalities among females was not accounted for by alcohol-related fatal crashes; from 1982 to 1990, the estimated number of ARTFs decreased 10% among females and 13% among males. Nonalcohol-related traffic fatalities increased 33% among females and 12% among males (Table 1). Preliminary data from NHTSA indicate that total fatalities decreased to 41,150 in 1991; fatalities among males decreased to 28,225 (an 11% decrease over 1982), while fatalities among females decreased to 12,925 (a 7% increase over 1982).

From 1982 to 1990, the number of female drivers involved in fatal crashes increased 28%, while the number of male drivers involved in fatal crashes remained essentially unchanged (Table 2). Decreases in the estimated numbers of alcohol-involved drivers in fatal crashes were greater for males (15%) than for females (4%). However, the increase in the estimated number of nonalcohol-involved female drivers (39%) was greater than the increase in nonalcohol-involved male drivers (10%).

Nationwide, the number of female licensed drivers increased 12% from 1982 to 1989 (the most recent year for which license data are available), compared with a 7% increase among males. Involvement rates for female drivers in fatal crashes per 100,000 licensed drivers were lower in 1982 and in 1989 than those of male drivers (Table 3). However, the total involvement rate in fatal crashes for male drivers decreased 6%, but increased 17% for female drivers. From 1982 to 1989, the estimated alcohol-involvement rate decreased 8% for female drivers and 21% for male drivers. The estimated rate for intoxicated drivers involved in fatal crashes also decreased more slowly for females than for males (11% versus 21%). However, from 1982 to 1989, the estimated driver-involvement rate in crashes where alcohol was not a contributing factor increased 27% for females and 5% for males.

Reported by: ME Vegega, PhD, Office of Alcohol and State Programs, Traffic Safety Programs; TM Klein, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Research and Development, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Unintentional Injuries Section, Epidemiology Br, Div of Injury Control, National Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Drinking and driving has traditionally been considered a problem predominately among males, and males still account for a greater proportion of both ARTFs and alcohol-involved drivers in fatal crashes. However, the increasing number of females involved in fatal crashes underscores the need to better characterize this problem.

Data from North Carolina indicate that, from 1975 through 1984, males showed a substantial decrease in crash rates, while females demonstrated almost no change (2), and females aged less than 35 years exhibited greater increases in crash rates than their male counterparts (3). Studies also indicate that arrest rates for driving while intoxicated have increased among women (2,4) as have single-vehicle nighttime crashes (a surrogate measure for alcohol-related crashes) (2).

The findings in this report suggest the alcohol-involvement rate for female drivers is not declining as quickly as it is for male drivers. However, the data presented here do not suggest an increase in drinking and driving among women. Differences in methodologies (e.g., variables investigated) and time periods studied may account for the discrepancy with other studies. In addition, because this analysis did not disaggregate age data for each sex, possible increases in alcohol-involvement among young females could not be detected.

Possible explanations for the findings reported here include changing roles for women, increased social acceptability of women as both drinkers and drivers, and increased exposure for women during times of high risk (e.g., nighttime and weekends). In addition, because males have been overwhelmingly involved in traffic fatalities and ARTFs, prevention and intervention programs typically have been targeted toward males. The findings reported here emphasize the need to determine the reasons for both the increase in traffic fatalities among females and the increased involvement of females as drivers in fatal crashes and target programs to females accordingly. In addition, information may need to be targeted toward women about the effects of alcohol on performance and the differences between women and men in alcohol metabolism and intoxication levels reached at specific doses of alcohol (6).


  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fatal Accident Reporting System 1990: a review of information on fatal traffic crashes in the United States. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1991; publication no. DOT-HS-807794.

  2. Popkin CL, Rudisill LC, Waller PF, Geissinger SB. Female drinking and driving: recent trends in North Carolina. Accid Anal Prev 1988;20:219-25.

  3. Popkin CL. Drinking and driving by young females. Accid Anal Prev 1991;23:37-44.

  4. Shore ER, McCoy ML, Toonen LA, Kuntz EJ. Arrests of women for driving under the influence. J Stud Alcohol 1988;49:7-10.

  5. Klein TM. A method for estimating posterior BAC distributions for persons involved in fatal traffic accidents: final report. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1986; report no. DOT-HS-807-094.

  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and Women. In: Alcohol Alert. Rockville, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, October 1990.

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