Children killed in DUI crashes likely to be in car with drunk driver

By Robbie Webber

Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for children under 15 years of age, and drunk driving is involved in about one-fifth of these crashes. However, contrary to common perception, the child is likely to be riding in the same car as the drunk driver, and the rate of these crashes varies considerably across the country.

A new study in Pediatrics looks at the variation by state. South Dakota, New Mexico, and Mississippi had the highest rate of children killed while riding with an impaired driver. Some states’ rates were low enough that no meaningful measurement could be calculated.

The study by researchers at Northwestern University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not compare state DUI laws or enforcement to the child-fatality rate due to impaired driving. But the researchers recommend some strategies for addressing this danger to children and suggest that further investigation may reveal correlations between legal approaches to drunk driving and crash rates involving children.

Although news stories portraying the tragedy of a family killed by a drunk driver tug at the heartstrings, 65 percent of children killed in crashes involving DUI were being transported by an impaired driver. Of all crashes where a child was killed, 20 percent involved an impaired driver. Approximately one third of all fatal crashes in the U.S. involve an impaired driver, though the rate varies considerably by state.

The research also found that 71 percent of impaired drivers survived the crash where the child passenger was killed, and 61 percent of children in these crashes were not restrained. During this same period, 34 percent of all children killed in crashes were restrained, so the lack of proper restraint is likely a significant factor in alcohol-impaired crashes involving child passengers. As is common for most alcohol-involved fatal crashes, the average driver blood alcohol content in these crashes was almost twice the national legal limit of .08 percent.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.