Connecticut saw a decline in drunk-driving fatalities in 2014, but the state still ranks among the highest in the country in the percentage of traffic deaths involving alcohol-impaired drivers, new federal data show.
Ninety-seven of the 248 traffic fatalities in Connecticut, or 39 percent, involved drivers with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher, considered alcohol-impaired, according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That rate is higher than the U.S. average of 31 percent, and is the fifth highest nationally -- behind Texas, North Dakota and Massachusetts, with rates of 41 percent, and Delaware, at 40 percent. Vermont had the lowest rate, at 20 percent.
Total motor vehicle deaths in Connecticut declined from 276 in 2013 to 248, in line with a national trend. The number of crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers also decreased, from 114 in 2013 to 97, a 15 percent drop.
There were also fewer drivers overall killed in crashes – 175 in 2014, down from 183 in 2013, according to data from the state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. James Gill.
But of the 161 drivers who died in crashes and were tested for alcohol, 70, or 43 percent, tested positive, indicating that drunk driving remains a significant factor in Connecticut’s traffic deaths. Gill said the rate of positive testing actually could be higher because some drivers survived hours or days before autopsy tests were conducted, and autopsy testing “may not reflect the degree of intoxication at the time of the collision, due to metabolism of the drug during the survival period.”
Thirty-one dead drivers, or 19 percent, tested positive for marijuana.
Michelle Lettieri, assistant director of the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the drop in fatalities involving alcohol-impaired drivers was welcome news. Those numbers had climbed from 100 in 2012, to 114 in 2013. She credited local and state police for aggressive enforcement, including establishing DUI checkpoints.
But she also noted that Connecticut has more work to do to discourage intoxicated people from getting behind the wheel. Although Connecticut’s percentage of fatal accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers dropped slightly – from 41 percent in 2013 to 39 percent – its rate remained among the highest five states.
“Unfortunately, we still have a high percentage of people who just don’t get it,” Lettieri said. “If you are going to drink and you’re out socializing, call an Uber, call a taxi. It’s a mindset we have to break -- ‘I’m OK, I’ll get home, it’s not too far.’ If people know someone who has been drinking, they have to step up and take the keys.”
A county-by-county breakdown of fatal crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers shows that New London County had the highest rate of drunk-driving fatalities in 2014 – 5.48 per 100,000 population. Tolland County was second highest, while Windham County was third.
Middlesex and Fairfield counties had the lowest rates – 1.82 and 1.9, respectively.
In terms of total crashes, including those not alcohol-related, Windham County had the highest rate of traffic deaths – 12.82 per 100,000 population. Fairfield County had the lowest rate – 4.97 per 100,000.
The state also continued to report BACs of drivers involved in fatal accidents at a low rate, compared to other states. Federal data show that the state reported BAC results for only 96 of the 175 dead drivers in 2014, or 54 percent; the national average was 71 percent.
All states are supposed to report BAC results to the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System(FARS), a nationwide census of fatal traffic accidents that enables the NHTSA, Congress and policymakers to gauge regional and national impaired-driving rates and other safety problems. A C-HIT story in November found that while the medical examiner’s office was testing the BACs of the majority of deceased drivers, some of those results did not get reported to the state Department of Transportation, which submits data to the federal system.
Both the NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board have recommended that states take action to improve their federal BAC reporting rates to 80 percent for fatally injured drivers and at least 60 percent for those who survive crashes that involve fatalities. Connecticut reported BAC results for fewer than 25 percent of surviving drivers in 2014, NHTSA data show.
Of the 248 motor vehicle fatalities in Connecticut, 55 were motorcyclists, 47 were pedestrians, and three were cyclists.
Nationally, fatalities in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes decreased by 1.4 percent – from 10,110 to 9, 967 – from 2013 to 2014, the data show. The rate of alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities in motor vehicle crashes in 2014 was 0.33 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, a slight decline from 0.34 in 2013.
In fatal crashes in 2014, the highest percentage of drivers with BACs of .08 or higher was among 21- to 24-year-olds (30 percent), followed by 25- to 34-year-olds (29 percent).
Overall in 2014, 32,675 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. That number has fallen 25 percent since 2005.
In releasing the 2014 data, the NHTSA warned that statistical projections for 2015 indicate that traffic fatalities may be increasing. Preliminary data reported by the Federal Highway Administration show that vehicle miles traveled in the first six months of 2015 increased by about 51.9 billion miles, or about 3.5 percent, and that the fatality rate increased to 1.06 per 100 million miles driven, up from 1.01 fatalities per 100 million miles in 2014.
This report was originally published by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.