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Current Trends Drivers With Repeat Convictions or Arrests for Driving While Impaire -- United States

In 1992 (the latest year for which data are available), more than 1.6 million persons in the United States (approximately 1% of licensed drivers) were arrested for driving while impaired (DWI) (1). Persons arrested for DWI are at substantially greater risk for future death in a motor-vehicle crash involving alcohol than those who have not been arrested for DWI, and this risk increases directly in relation to the number of DWI arrests (2). In addition, drivers convicted of DWI are at greater risk of being involved in a fatal crash, regardless of whether they are killed (3). This report summarizes data about convictions and arrests for DWI from state traffic safety officials analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during 1994.

During May-June 1994, NHTSA contacted the governor's traffic safety representative in each of the 50 states requesting all available data about the proportion of DWI arrests or convictions that involved a repeat DWI offender and the duration for which DWI convictions or arrests are retained in a driver's record. Of the 14 states for which data were available and complete, seven reported data by the number of drivers arrested or convicted for DWI, and seven reported data by the total proportion of DWI arrests or convictions. Only data reported by the number of drivers arrested or convicted for DWI are presented in this analysis.

Five of the seven states reported data about drivers convicted for DWI; in these states, the estimated percentage of drivers with previous DWI convictions ranged from 21% (Iowa during 1992) to 48% (New Mexico during 1992) Table_1. The other two states reported information about drivers arrested for DWI; the estimated percentages of drivers with previous DWI arrests were 26% (Colorado during 1989-91) and 46% (Minnesota during 1993) Table_1. The percentage of drivers arrested or convicted for DWI with previous convictions or arrests did not vary substantially during the year(s) for which the data were reported. However, the percentages were greater in most of the states that retained driving records for longer periods of time. Reported by: JC Fell, MS, Office of Alcohol and State Programs, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Div of Unintentional Injury Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in the United States for persons in all age groups from ages 1 through 34 years (4). Approximately 44% of the 40,115 traffic fatalities in 1993 were alcohol-related (5). In 1990, alcohol- related crashes cost $46.1 billion, including $5.1 billion in medical expenses (6).

Although state laws have been effective in reducing drinking and driving and deaths associated with alcohol-related crashes (6), the findings in this report indicate that, in those states that provided data, approximately one third of drivers who were arrested or convicted for DWI had previous offenses for alcohol-impaired driving. Although this finding is consistent with previous unpublished reports of state data, it probably underestimates the prevalence of such drivers because convictions or arrests for DWI that occur out-of-state may not be included in a driver's record.

Because of the limited number of states with available data, the findings in this report may not be representative of all drivers with previous convictions or arrests for DWI. The need for such information underscores the importance for states and localities to develop systems to track DWI offenders (e.g., systems that combine criminal justice records with driver history data).

The risk for repeat arrests for DWI is higher among males and young persons (7); this risk is also higher among persons with histories of numerous traffic violations, a high alcohol concentration at arrest, and histories of alcohol problems (7). For example, of 461 drivers convicted of DWI in New York City during 1983-84, approximately 73% had histories of serious alcohol problems (8).

In addition to the influence of the risk factors, the percentage of drivers with previous convictions or arrests for DWI may reflect the aggressiveness with which states enforce laws against alcohol-impaired driving. Although the annual arrest rate for DWI nationally in 1992 was nine per 1000 licensed drivers (1), the rate varied by state and ranged from three to 22 per 1000 licensed drivers (1). In addition, most repeat arrests for DWI occur within 5 years of the previous arrest date (R. Peck, California Department of Motor Vehicles, unpublished data, 1994).

Effective strategies implemented by states and localities to prevent drinking and driving have included prompt license suspension for persons who drive while intoxicated; enactment of legislation lowering permissible blood alcohol content to 0.08 g/dL for adults and to 0.02 g/dL for drivers aged less than 21 years; and initiation of public education, community awareness, and media campaigns about the dangers of alcohol-impaired driving (6). Specific measures implemented to prevent repeat convictions and arrests for DWI include mandatory substance-abuse assessment and treatment, incarceration, and both; house arrest with electronic monitoring; ignition interlocks on vehicles; license plate tags that identify drivers with licenses suspended for DWI; vehicle impoundment or confiscation; fines; and increases in automobile insurance rates (9). The effectiveness of these specific measures must be evaluated further; however, the findings in this report suggest that, to prevent injuries and deaths in alcohol-related crashes, additional and stronger state legislation (e.g., mandatory substance-abuse assessment and treatment) should be directed toward persons arrested for or convicted of DWI.


  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice. Uniform crime reports: crime in the United States, 1992. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1993.

  2. Brewer RD, Morris PD, Cole T, Watkins S, Patetta MJ, Popkin C. The risk of dying in alcohol-related automobile crashes among habitual drunk drivers. N Engl J Med 1994;331:513-7.

  3. Fell JC. Repeat DWI offenders: their involvement in fatal crashes. In: Utzelmann H-D, Berghaus G, Kroj G, eds. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs, and Traffic Safety. Cologne, Germany: Verlag TUV Rheinland, 1993.

  4. NCHS. Health, United States, 1993. Hyattsville, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1994; DHHS publication no. (PHS)94-1232.

  5. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US Department of Transportation. Traffic safety facts, 1993: alcohol. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1994.

  6. CDC. Reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities -- United States, 1990-1992. MMWR 1993; 42:905-9.

  7. Arstein-Kerslake GW, Peck RC. A typological analysis of California DUI offenders and DUI recidivism correlates. Sacramento, California: California Department of Motor Vehicles, Research and Development Office, 1985.

  8. Miller BA, Whitney R, Washousky R. Alcoholism diagnoses for convicted drinking drivers referred for alcoholism evaluation. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1986;10:651-6.

  9. Popkin CL, Wells-Parker E. A research agenda for the specific deterrence of DWI. Journal of Traffic Medicine 1994;22:1-14.

Note: To print large tables and graphs users may have to change their printer settings to landscape and use a small font size.

TABLE 1. Estimated number of drivers convicted or arrested
for driving while impaired (DWI), by state and year -- United States
                                Drivers convicted of DWI
                                         Previous convictions
State              Year(s)     Total       No.         (%)
Iowa                1992       18,000      3,780 *     (21)
Nebraska            1994 +    146,619     38,547 &     (26)
New Mexico          1992       11,478      5,566 &     (48)
North Carolina      1988       65,714     21,028 @     (32)
Ohio              1980-93     637,678    211,280 **    (33)

                                Drivers arrested for DWI
                                         Previous arrests
State              Year(s)     Total       No.          (%)
Colorado          1989-91      99,848     26,335 ++     (26)
Minnesota           1993       30,717     14,034 &&     (46)
*  Within 6 years of the most recent conviction.
+  Drivers convicted as of March 4, 1994.
&  Within 30 years of the most recent conviction.
@  Within 7 years of the most recent conviction.
** Within 5 years of the most recent conviction.
++ Within 5 years of the most recent arrest.
&& Within 30 years of the most recent arrest.

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