Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths Totals Grossly Inaccurate: Drunk Driving As A Cause Of Death Not Properly Documented in Death Certificates

Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths Totals Grossly Inaccurate: Drunk Driving As A Cause Of Death Not Properly Documented in Death Certificates

Drunk driving kills millions of Americans each year and there are all sorts of campaigns to fight against people drinking and then driving on U.S. roads. Personal injuries and wrongful deaths in car crashes, as well as other kinds of motor vehicle accidents (truck accidents, pedestrian accidents, motorcycle accidents) caused by people driving while intoxicated are preventable tragedies.

Sadly, a recent study has revealed that alcohol is not being accurately reported by doctors on death certificates in the U.S. after fatal traffic accidents as well as in other alcohol-related deaths. Many doctors, the research shows, will state any manner of different causes of death besides alcohol, leaving these death records inaccurate in the individual case and underreporting the reality of alcohol-related deaths in mortality statistics.


Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which reports that around 21% of those killed in a traffic accident in this country are legally over the limit and legally drunk (i.e., with a blood alcohol content that exceeds the statutory maximum), death certificates tallied only 3% of traffic deaths to be alcohol related.

Three percent (3%) versus twenty-one percent (21%) is a big difference.

From the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs:

death certificates captured only a small percentage of MVT deaths involving BAC of .08% or more. Reporting ratio did not improve over time, even though FARS indicated that the prevalence of BAC of at least .08% in MVT deaths increased from 19.9% in 1999 to 24.2% in 2009. State reporting ratios varied widely, from 0.02 (Nevada and New Jersey) to 0.81 (Delaware).

Conclusions: The comparison of MCoD with FARS revealed a large discrepancy in reporting alcohol involvement in MVT deaths and considerable state variation in the magnitude of underreporting. We suspect similar underreporting and state variations in alcohol involvement in other types of injury deaths. (J. Stud. Alcohol Drugs, 75, 299–312, 2014)

From the report:

Despite the growing recognition of alcohol use as an important risk factor for public health, the reporting of alcohol involvement on death certificates does not seem to have improved much over the years. Medical examiners, coroners, and physicians serving as death certifiers are the key to accurate and complete cause-of-death information. (p.310)

Wrongful Death Claims Often Based Upon Fatal Traffic Accidents: Death Certificates Cannot Be Trusted

In both Indiana and Illinois, there are statutes which provide special legal causes of action to those who have lost a loved one due to the wrongdoing of another. These “wrongful death” cases are all too often based upon drunk driving accidents where someone driving while under the influence has caused a fatal traffic accident.

Death certificates are a part of the proof that is used in these kinds of wrongful death cases. They may also be important in serious personal injury cases where the injury victim is seeking damages after surviving a serious crash.

It is vital to recognize that Death Certificates cannot be trusted on their face for their accuracy as this important new research study reveals. In other words, even though the Death Certificate may not point to alcohol, that document cannot stand inviolate as proof that the accident was not caused by someone driving drunk and causing the wrongful death of another (or their serious personal injury).  If you or a loved one suspect that alcohol may have been involved in the crash, then it may be necessary to investigate further and not rely upon the Death Certificate as an exclusion of drunk driving as the reason for the accident. 

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