What’s New Year’s Eve without a glass of bubbly?

This is the season to celebrate, but the holidays mean more than an upswing in good cheer and liquor sales—they also herald an annual epidemic of drunk driving. According to a report released in 2007 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drunk-driving related fatal crashes rise significantly in the two-week period encompassing Christmas and New Year’s Eve. On average, there are 36 fatalities on American roadways every day. During Christmas the average rises to 45 daily deaths and jumps to 54 on New Year’s Eve. It seems that long car trips to see family combined with feasts filled with eggnog and Champagne are the perfect recipe for drunk driving.

Of course traffic fatalities happen every day of the year and drunk driving is always a major factor. While only 1 in 3,690 licensed drivers will be involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident each year (a less than a .03% chance), the odds a driver involved in that accident had a blood alcohol content (BAC) over the legal limit are 1 in 4.58, or about the same as having a flight delay at the airport (1 in 4.6).

Gender and age are big factors in drunk driving accidents. A man is at the wheel in 1 in 1.19 fatal crashes involving a driver with a BAC of .08 or higher and, according to another NHTSA report, the majority of alcohol-impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes are 21 to 24-year olds. In fact, that age group is involved in more than 30% of all fatal alcohol-related crashes.

If these numbers sound bad, however, we can take solace in the fact they represent a vast improvement over the 1970’s. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, road-side breathalyzer surveys undertaken in 1973 found that 13.7% of drivers stopped on the road had BACs of .05 or greater. A full 5% were at .10, well over the legal limit of .08. Subsequent studies in 1996, however, found that both rates had been nearly halved, to 7.7%, and 2.8% respectively.

While driver education and public information campaigns have made drunk driving less socially acceptable and less common, there is still a long road to go. The organization M.A.D.D., or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, estimates that 11,773 people died in drunk-driving related accidents in 2008 alone.

So what’s to be done? For starters, M.A.D.D. is pushing for devices called “ignition interlocks” to be installed on the cars of anyone ticketed for drunk driving. The interlocks would demand a legal BAC reading from a driver before allowing the car to start. M.A.D.D. contends that deterrents like tickets and jail time aren’t working, noting that a first-time drunk driving offender averages 87 other undetected drunken trips before getting caught.

At the top of the resolutions list for 2010? Don’t drink and drive

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