Vice Squad
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
'External' Drunk Driving Deaths

Some 13,000 Americans are killed in accidents involving drunk drivers each year. Many of these fatalities are neither the drivers themselves nor passengers in their cars -- that is, many of the deaths clearly involve "externalities". Precisely how many is less clear, at least to me. A well-known 1989 article* noted a Department of Transportation estimate that 7,400 of 22,400 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 1985 were of individuals who had not been drinking, though presumably many of these individuals were passengers in the drunk drivers' cars. In the EU, it has been estimated** that 10,000 of 17,000 drunk driving fatalities each year are of people other than the drinking driver. Professor Becker, in the blog post that we recently linked to, mentioned a figure of more than 2000 external drunk-driving deaths in the year 2000, from an analysis by Professor Kevin Murphy.

The distinction between drivers and their passengers on the one hand, and others, on the, well, other hand, is only important if you think that the risks of riding with the impaired driver have somehow been fully taken into account in decisions to be such a passenger, and that the 'decision' to drive drunk is somehow rational, too. If these conditions hold, the 'external' costs of the driving are only those imposed on pedestrians or people riding in other cars (abstracting from still further issues with respect to public and private car and health insurance).

To be honest, this started as a post about ignition interlock devices, but my ignorance about the external deaths from drunk driving led things in another direction. Not that I have undone my ignorance on this topic -- I have simply sketched its contours. Please e-mail vicesquad at if you can shed some light on this issue.

The original topic (ignition interlocks), as well as the figure of 13,000 drinking-related traffic deaths each year, was drawn from a current MADD initiative.

*Manning, W.G., E. B. Keeler, J. P. Newhouse, E. M. Sloss, and J. Wasserman, “The Taxes of Sin: Do Smokers and Drinkers Pay Their Way?” Journal of the American Medical Association 261(11): 1604-1609, March 17, 1989.

**See Anderson, Peter, and Ben Baumberg, “Alcohol in Europe – A Public Health Perspective.” Report for the European Commission, Institute of Alcohol Studies, UK, June 2006.

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