At around 10 p.m. on July 4, 2020, a drunk driver struck a teenager on a motorcycle in Cowley County, Kansas, killing him at the scene. Even his helmet could not protect him from the severe impact of the head-on collision.
On Christmas Eve 2020 at around 3 a.m., two San Antonio men were killed in separate collisions with the same drunk driver – a 26-year-old who entered Southeast Loop 410 the wrong way. One of the victims was a trauma nurse and a veteran. Both men who lost their lives were fathers separated from their families.
At 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve 2020, a group of friends in Bakersfield, California were driving a few blocks away, but they never made it. The driver of their own car crashed into a tree, killing his three friends seated in the back with no seatbelts. He had been drinking.
There is no debate that alcohol use and drunk driving is a significant factor in traffic crashes in the United States. In fact, from 2015 – 2019, over 25 percent of fatal crashes in the U.S. involved at least one alcohol-impaired driver. This amounted to 43,494 crashes and 48,348 deaths that may have been completely preventable.
Because drunk driving crashes are so prevalent, we wanted to find out more. When are they the most likely to occur? Are certain days more dangerous? Do some states have bigger problems than others? We worked with data visualization agency 1Point21 Interactive to analyze fatal crash data from 2015-2019 to find out.
According to the latest crash data from NHTSA, there was a significant increase in the number of fatalities in alcohol-related crashes reported by the police from 2019 to 2020 (16%) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data shows that the fatalities in these types of crashes also increased by 5% from 2020 to 2021. This indicates that the number of fatalities in alcohol-involved, police-reported crashes in 2021 was still higher than the levels seen in 2019 prior to the pandemic.
When examining this data, it’s easy to look at totals to see which days are deadliest. In general, fatal drunk driving collisions are much more likely to occur on Friday (15 percent), Saturday (24 percent), and Sunday (22 percent).
However, to find out which specific days road users may be at higher risk of being killed by a drunk driver, we went beyond total volume. We calculated the percentage of total fatal crashes that involved at least one drunk driver. By this measure, the three most dangerous days are either holidays or the day after a holiday – New Year’s Day, The Fourth of July and the day after St. Patrick’s Day.
In fact, among the 25 days with the highest percent of drunk driving crashes, seven are either fixed date holidays or the day after a fixed date holiday.
|Rank||Date||Alcohol Related |
|Fatal Crashes||Percentage of Crashes |
We found that New Year’s Day is – by far – the deadliest and most dangerous day of the year in terms of drunk driving. While this day had only two more drunk driving fatalities than the next closest day – the Fourth of July – 43 percent of all fatal crashes were alcohol-related. Over the five-year study period, there were 232 fatal crashes and a total of 255 people killed on New Year’s Day from alcohol-impaired crashes.
We also found that there were more than twice as many crashes and fatalities on New Year’s Day between midnight and 4 a.m., compared to 8 p.m. to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Once the new calendar year begins, the roads become much more dangerous.
The second deadliest day for drunk driving was the Fourth of July, behind only New Year’s Day. A total of 253 people were killed in alcohol-related collisions on this summer holiday and 36 percent of all fatal crashes (209) involved at least one drunk driver.
On Independence Day, the deadliest hour is 10 p.m., most likely when people are driving home after watching the fireworks show. People are already under a holiday daze, but when that state of mind is combined with alcohol and high traffic, the result can be dangerous.
St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, is celebrated by people of all backgrounds around the world. As another heavy drinking holiday in the U.S., both St. Patrick’s day and the day after are extremely high-risk days for fatal drunk driving accidents. On March 18th, 35 percent of all fatal crashes involved alcohol – the third-highest percentage of any day – while 32 percent were alcohol-related on St. Patrick’s Day.
The most alcohol-related fatal crashes on the 17th and 18th occurred in: California (46), Texas (29), Florida (27), Virginia (13) and Louisiana (11). Three of the four counties on these two days were in California: Riverside (7), Los Angeles (6) and Kern (4), with Arizona’s Maricopa County (7) rounding out the top five.
Cinco de Mayo, celebrated on the 5th of May, is very often mistaken as “Mexican Independence day.” However, this holiday actually celebrates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla. In the U.S., it is seen as a day to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. It’s also one of the heaviest drinking holidays, along with the two listed above. As such, both the 5th and 6th of May are among the most dangerous days for fatal drunk driving accidents. Just over 32 percent of all crashes on both days involved at least one drunk driver.
While Christmas day has a relatively low number of drunk driving-related crashes, they make up a high percentage of all fatal crashes at 31 percent. Christmas day is not generally thought of as a focus day for drunk driving prevention, but it appears that it should be added to the discussion. California and Florida led the way in these types of crashes with 20 and 17 respectively, more than double that of third-place Texas (8).
While all fatal crashes peak at 6 p.m. – the height of rush hour – the most dangerous hours of the day for drunk driving aren’t during the day at all. In fact, fatal crashes involving alcohol are much more common late at night and in the early hours of the morning – peaking between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. During this hour, 3,540 alcohol-related fatal crashes occurred – a full 58 percent of all collisions. This explains why so many of the most dangerous days come the day after a heavy drinking holiday.
|Hour||Drunk Driving |
|Drunk Driving |
|All Crashes||All Deaths|
Based on this data, the answer appears to be yes. While large states such as California, Texas and Florida have many times more fatal crashes than smaller states, those figures don’t tell you everything. We adjusted for both percentages of total crashes and alcohol-related fatal crashes per capita. We found that those three states were at or below the U.S. average for both of those metrics.
Montana, North Dakota, and Rhode Island have the highest percentage of alcohol-related crashes in the United States, the only three states above 40 percent. All in all, 29 states and D.C. were above the national average of 26 percent.
Montana and North Dakota also have two of the highest rates of these crashes per capita (with Wyoming and South Carolina as the other two states with a crash rate of more than double the national average).
Interestingly, New York had the lowest number of any state in both metrics, with less than one fatal drunk-driving crash per 100,000 people and only 19 percent of fatal crashes involved alcohol. Montana, on the other hand, had the highest number in both metrics with 7.28 fatal drunk-driving crashes per 100,000 people and 44 percent of fatal crashes being alcohol-related.
|State||All Crashes||Drunk Driving |
|Alcohol Related |
|Alcohol Related |
Crashes Per 100k
|District of Columbia||130||35||27%||0.72|
Is there such a thing as moderation on holidays? For most, holidays tend to be a time of excess: excess eating, excess buying, and excess drinking. It isn’t surprising then when people throw caution to the wind and act impulsively – on and off the road.
People’s behavior and choices are often influenced by social-environmental factors, specifically their friends or the hosts at the party and whether they encourage or discourage drinking and driving.
However, days of celebration, of joy, do not have to lead to tragedy. Follow these five tips to increase roadway safety:
We analyzed 2015-2019 fatal crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to find out which days of the year had the most fatal crashes where alcohol was a factor.
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