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There may be more than meets the eye to impaired driving stats

New statistics appear to show that in recent years, there have been fewer crashes and roadway deaths in Virginia attributable to drunk driving. Many law enforcement officials have hailed the numbers as a sure sign that harsher DUI laws have been very effective in Virginia. But is that the case?

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle statistics recently reported that since 2005, fatalities related to drunk driving have fallen by 21 percent. Crashes reported to be related to impaired driving in general dropped by about 30 percent over the same period in Virginia.

However, also during this same period, DUI convictions in Virginia remained relatively steady. What is more, Virginia statistics mirror a nationwide trend in terms of a decline in roadway fatalities related to alcohol consumption. The latest federal statistics available show that between 2005 and 2012, fatal crashes in which alcohol consumption was a factor declined by 23 percent.

Virginia officials have been quick to trumpet the success of new, harsher DUI laws in reducing the number of crashes and fatalities on the roads. Approximately a decade ago, Virginia lawmakers considered more 70 bills seeking harsher DUI penalties and draconian sanctions for repeat drunk driving offenders. But considering that the Virginia statistics mirror the nationwide trend and DUI convictions have remained consistent, it is more likely that demographic factors played a far greater role in safety improvements than unduly harsh DUI penalties.

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn about statistics is that they can be bent to fit almost any political agenda. Just because official statistics show a decline in impaired driving crashes does not mean that harsher DUI sanctions can rightfully claim credit for improved roadway safety.

Source: The Virginia-Pilot, "DUI Laws Lead to Drop in Va. Crashes, Deaths," Louis Hansen, July 15, 2014

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