Death certificates failing to reveal alcohol as factor in DUI accidents

According to a new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, there may be a reason behind the lack of initiative on both the local and federal level to pass stricter drunk driving laws-death certificates.

The study

Researchers analyzed U.S. death certificates from individuals who perished in motor vehicles accidents during the 10 year period from 1999-2009 and found some startling revelation.

Out of the total number of vehicle accident deaths reviewed, only 3 percent of death certificates indicated that alcohol played a factor in the death. Researchers, however, compared this data with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System-a federal database referred to as FARS that contains data on traffic fatalities that occur in all 50 states-and found a big discrepancy. The FARS reported that 21 percent of car accident fatalities involved alcohol-a much higher number than what the death certificates reported.

So why is there such a big gap between what's documented on the death certificate and what's indicated in the fatality reporting system?

Potential reason behind the discrepancy

Researchers of the study point to one potential reason. Death certificates are usually issued within 4 days after a death; obtaining blood alcohol test results can take a week or more.

Sadly, they say, despite new technological advances and the "growing recognition of alcohol use as an important risk factor for public health," processing death certificates when it comes to alcohol-related fatalities remains stagnant.

The problem

According to Ralph Hingson of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the gap revealed from the study plays an important role in combating drunk driving accidents.

Legislation is often introduced and passed as a result of data. Without accurate information on alcohol related vehicle accident fatalities, authorities may not sense a true problem and refrain from passing serious drunk driving laws.

A case in point involves the National Transportation Safety Board's push to lower the legal blood alcohol concentration limit from .08 to .05. The Board has encouraged states to adopt a lower BAC limit because of the strong correlation between vehicle accident deaths and alcohol-but to no avail.

According to Hingson, a distorted perception in the true number of alcohol related auto accident fatalities in a local area or community may dictate why local legislators have decided not to embrace the NTSB's proposal.

Recommendation

We need to have a handle on what's contributing to the leading cause of death among young people. [We] want to know how big the problem is, and if we can track it," Hingson said.

Hingsman recommends that "Federal and state governments should continue to encourage or perhaps start to require death certifiers to report alcohol involvement when it contributes to death."