A Growing Concern: Female Drunk Drivers
The majority of people arrested for drunk driving and who are responsible for drunk driving fatalities and serious injuries are men. But what about women? Over the past few years a number of women have been arrested in high-profile drunk driving cases, most notably Diane Schuler who drove, with her children in her van, the wrong way down the Taconic in New York, and Carmen Huertas (Leandra’s Law). These cases have sparked renewed interest in the involvement of women who drink and drive and, more importantly, the extent to which this problem may be growing.
In order to gain a better sense of what is known about this issue, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, with funding from The Century Council, took a closer look at this issue in a recent study that identified a number of interesting findings.
The study highlights three main explanations that have been put forward in an effort to explain this recent trend:
- Changes in the social roles of women (e.g., they are more likely to travel for work, to drive more miles, and to drive more often on evenings and weekends)
- Changes in social values (e.g., it is more acceptable for women to consume alcohol in public, women are more likely to have their first drink at a younger age, and fewer women abstain from drinking alcohol)
- Changes in socio-legal and social control mechanisms (e.g., there are more female police officers, and reducing the illegal blood alcohol concentration limit from .10 to .08 resulted in more women being brought to attention of police)
It also known that, regardless of the extent to which one or all of these explanations may have contributed to the problem, there are some disturbing data that warrant our attention. Although an examination of female self-report data on drinking and driving and crash data reveals that there has been little change in female involvement in drinking and driving in the past three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women arrested for drunk driving in just the past decade.
To illustrate, in 1980, just 9% of those arrested for DWI were female with the percentage rising to nearly 15% by 1996 and 20% by 2004. The number of female DWI arrests has risen nationally by 28.8% between 1998 and 2007.
More importantly, research reveals some important differences between men and women when they drink. In particular, women are more impaired after consuming smaller amounts of alcohol because they have less water in the body, less alcohol is metabolized in the stomach and intestines, and they often have a lower body mass relative to males. More concerning, women experience a more rapid progression of alcohol dependence, and require medical intervention an average of four years earlier than males who are problem drinkers.
Women also have some different characteristics when compared with male drunk drivers. They are more likely to be single, separated or divorced, and to have custody of children. They also are more likely to suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, and use drugs in addition to alcohol. These differences may have important implications for the delivery of impaired driving interventions and treatment for women.
The good news is that there is more research currently underway to gain a better understanding of this issue. TIRF, under funding from The Century Council, and in partnership with the National Center for DWI Courts and the American Probation and Parole Association, are working to gain a better understanding of this problem and ways it can be addressed. Results from this study will be available in early 2013.