In the last year, a series of terrible alcohol-related traffic fatalities has again focused legislative and public attention on the DWI issue. In light of recent and pending DWI legislation, it is important to ask where Alaska stands, statistically, with regard to alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
Numbers compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation provide a somewhat surprising answer to this question. NHTSA statistics show a marked decrease in the total number of traffic fatalities in general in Alaska since 1975, while over the same period, Alaska's population increased significantly. There has also been a notable decrease in the percentage of fatal traffic accidents with anyone showing a high blood alcohol level.
Alaska Traffic Fatalities 1975-1999
According to the NHTSA, in 1999 the total number of traffic fatalities in Alaska was 76. This was 12.26 fatalities per 100,000 of population. The national average was 15.26 fatalities per 100,000 of population.
Although the number of fatalities rose from 70 in 1998 to 76 in 1999, the overall trend over the last quarter century has been markedly downward. There were 112 fatalities in 1975, 88 in 1980, 127 in 1985, 98 in 1990, 70 in 1998, and 76 in 1999—a 32 percent decline between 1975 and 1999. Over the same period Alaska's population increased from 384,100 to 622,000.
NHSTA figures also show a decrease in the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities between 1982 and 1999 in Alaska.
In 1982 there were 105 total traffic fatalities, 57 involving alcohol—i.e., someone in the crash tested positive for alcohol. Of these, 54 involved high blood alcohol levels—i.e., someone in the crash tested over .10.) Thus, in 1982, 55 percent of the total fatalities in Alaska were alcohol-related, and 52 percent involved high blood alcohol levels.
In 1999, there were 76 total traffic fatalities, 40 involving some alcohol and 32 involving high blood alcohol levels. Thus, 53 percent of the 1999 fatalities were alcohol-related and 43 percent involved high levels.
In summary, the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities decreased by 27 percent between 1982 and 1999. The percentage of the fatalities that involved at least some alcohol decreased slightly (55% in 1982 versus 53% in 1999), but the percentage that involved high blood alcohol levels decreased more significantly (52% in 1982 versus 43% in 1999).
Alaska Drivers in Fatal Crashes With Blood Alcohol Levels
The statistics in the preceding section relate to any alcohol involvement, including that shown by non-occupants of the vehicle such as pedestrians. NHTSA also has statistics on only the drivers of the vehicles. These statistics are important because they concern DWI drivers—the focus of recent attention.
In 1982, a total of 143 drivers were involved in fatal crashes, with 60 of these drivers testing positive for some level of alcohol. Fifty-one drivers demonstrated high blood alcohol levels (over .10). Hence, 42 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes had some level of blood alcohol, and 36 percent showed a high level.
In 1999, a total of 101 drivers were involved in fatal crashes: 36 (36%) of these drivers had some level of blood alcohol and 27 (27%) had high levels.
These statistics show that 40 percent fewer drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for some blood alcohol in 1999 than in 1982 (60 in 1982 versus 36 in 1999) and 47 percent fewer had high alcohol levels (51 in 1982 versus 27 in 1982). Also, the percentage of drivers indicating at least some alcohol decreased from 42 percent in 1982 to 36 percent in 1999, and the percentage of drivers with high levels decreased from 36 percent in 1982 to 27 percent in 1999.
Therefore, the number of drivers both with some level of blood alcohol and with high levels decreased significantly in Alaska. The percentages of these drivers as they relate to all drivers involved in fatal accidents also decreased. Again, this decrease is all the more significant because the population of the state increased by 25 percent during the same period.
National Figures in Comparison with Alaska
NHSTA data show that Alaska had 76 fatal accidents in 1999. This was the second lowest number in the nation. (The District of Columbia showed the lowest.) Alaska's rate of fatalities was significantly lower than the national averages in terms of population, licensed drivers, and registered vehicles. It was slightly higher in terms of vehicle miles traveled.
Between 1989 and 1999 the number of fatal accidents in Alaska that were alcohol-related decreased by 5 percent, and the number of fatal accidents with high levels of blood alcohol decreased by 9 percent, while nationally there were decreases of 22 percent in fatalities with some alcohol and 23 percent in those with high levels of blood alcohol.
The percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes Alaska with high levels of blood alcohol decreased at a lower rate than the national average. (Alaska started at 36% in 1982 and went down to 27% in 1999, versus the national averages—30% in 1982 down to 17% in 1999.) However, this statistic should be viewed in conjunction with the marked decrease in overall traffic fatalities.
It appears that efforts in Alaska to stop traffic fatalities in general and DWI fatalities in particular have had positive results, since both the actual numbers and the percentages have decreased at the same time the population has grown substantially.
Figures in the preceding article were assembled from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports "Traffic Safety Facts 1999: State Traffic Data" and "Traffic Safety Facts 1999: State Alcohol Estimates." G. Blair McCune is an attorney and an adjunct professor with the Justice Center.