Posted May 15, 2018 | Accidents
On June 8, 2016, a drunk driver veered across the center median on Loop 281 in Longview, Texas. His vehicle struck an oncoming Ford Escape, ejecting and killing 16-year-old Lauren Elrod.
The driver, Thomas Elliot Henkel, eventually pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter and was handed a 12-year prison sentence.
However, a Fielding Law analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data shows that Henkel had been arrested for drunk driving four times in the five years before the crash.
Over a two year period from 2015-2016, Henkel was one of 1,869 drunk drivers in fatal crashes who had at least one drunk driving conviction in the previous five years.
With the help of data visualization firm 1Point 21 Interactive, we analyzed NHTSA data for all motor vehicle fatalities in 2015 and 2016. We isolated the records for drivers who were reported as having been drinking at the time of the crash and had been arrested before drunk driving offenses before.
In these crashes, 2,074 people were killed. 391 of those killed were occupants of other vehicles or were non motorists (pedestrians or bicyclists).
While the majority of those drivers had only one previous conviction, 71 had been arrested three or more times.
Over 56 percent of these incidents(1,049) occurred in rural areas with outside of any city limits. Only 15 cities had five or more incidents:
At the state level, California had far and away the most, with 164 drivers, followed by Ohio with 111, North Carolina with 94, Texas with 87 and Georgia with 85. Only six states had less than ten occurrences, Rhode Island with three, Vermont with seven and Maryland, Hawaii and Delaware all with four.
Due to the massive population disparity from state to state, we looked at rates per 100,000 licensed drivers. When adjusted for number of licensed drivers, Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana were clear outliers with 4.03, 3.95 and 3.88 occurrences per 100,000 licensed drivers respectively.
Of the 1,869 repeat offenders, 1,765 were operating their vehicles with an invalid license. Only 27 drunk drivers had a valid license for the vehicle, while 77 were driving a vehicle that did not require a license.
It is worth noting that 11 states have severe punishments for repeat offenders regarding their driving privileges:
• Five states (FL, NE, NJ, OH, TN) offer long-term license suspensions up to 10 years – and in Nebraska’s case, up to 15.
• Three states (NH, NC, OR) punish 3-time offenders with potentially indefinite suspensions.
• Three states (CT, VT, VA) punish repeat offenders with permanent revocations on their 3rd offense.
Presumably, this was enacted as a form of deterrent to prevent drivers from operating their vehicles while intoxicated – but the data seems to indicate that driving privileges may be inconsequential to those who endanger themselves and others on the road.
As the license status data illustrates, it seems that license restriction penalties are not enough of a deterrent for drunk drivers We recommend expanding and strengthening mandatory alcohol assessment and treatment laws to all 50 states. Perhaps treating repeat drunk driving like the serious substance abuse and mental health issue that it is can help make a larger impact.
For our analysis, we used the count of drivers who were drinking, rather than the number of collisions. We did this to account for the possibility that a collision involved more than one drinking driver.
In this data set, if the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was positive, or if the police reported alcohol involvement, then the driver was counted as a drinking driver.
It should be noted that these figures are likely an undercounting of the issue. Alcohol information is often missing in reports to the NHTSA and our analysis can only use the data elements that available.