Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Do Drinkers Know When to Say When? an Empirical Analysis of Drunk Driving

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Do Drinkers Know When to Say When? an Empirical Analysis of Drunk Driving

Article excerpt

Drunkenness, for example, in ordinary cases, is not a fit subject for legislative interference; but I should deem it perfectly legitimate that a person, who had once been convicted of any act of violence to others under the influence of drink, should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself; that if he were afterwards found drunk, he should be liable to a penalty, and that if and when in that state he committed another offence, the punishment to which he would be liable for that other offence should be increased in severity.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty


It is estimated that about 40 percent of the U.S. population will be involved in an alcohol-related traffic accident sometime during their lifetime, according to Vegega and Klein [1990]. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for persons aged one to thirty-four, and during 1989, approximately one-half of the 45,555 traffic fatalities in the U.S. were estimated to be alcohol-related.

It is clear that the negative externalities drunk drivers impose on others account for a large part of the interest in reducing drunk driving. The enormous social interest in reducing the adverse consequences of drunk driving is apparent in the mass media as well as in the scholarly literature in economics and other disciplines.(1) Reducing drunk driving and its attendant social costs is a widely articulated goal of public policies and of groups like MADD and SADD as well as major insurance companies.

Public policies have, in large measure, adopted the economic view that a more stringent penalty structure, by increasing the expected "full price" of drunk driving, should reduce drunk driving and its attendant externalities. Such policies include license revocation, fines, and imprisonment as well as strategies to increase the social stigma attached to drunk driving, the costs of purchasing alcoholic beverages, and the awareness of these costs.

The objective of this paper is to analyze the determinants of drunk driving behavior from an economic perspective.(2) Our interest is in the roles of key sociodemographic factors (e.g., schooling, family structure, race, sex, etc.) and various public policies directly or indirectly oriented toward reducing drunk driving behavior. By characterizing such behavior as an economic choice, we describe a "demand for drunk driving" and empirically estimate its determinants. To this end, we utilize data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey, which surveys individuals about "driving after drinking too much." Such individual data provide what we feel is an interesting alternative to the state-level data often used to analyze drunk driving by, for example, Chaloupka, Grossman, and Saffer [1993].(3) Our empirical results largely confirm the major conclusion of studies that have used state-level data with respect to driving while intoxicated (DWI): the demand for drunk driving is negatively related to its full price.

This paper proceeds as follows. Section II presents a conceptual model of an individual's decision to drive drunk. Section III describes the data. Section IV presents estimates of the determinants of individuals' propensities to "drive after drinking too much." Section V summarizes our results. The appendix discusses possible reporting biases in drunk driving behavior and their implications for inferences.


Becker [1968] revolutionized social scientists' thinking about criminal behavior by suggesting that even the decision to engage in illegal behavior is likely to be based on a rational comparison of expected marginal costs and benefits. The expected "full price" of such illegal or criminal behavior is posited to be negatively related to this behavior. The full price depends on the pecuniary and psychic costs relating to crime. It is in this intellectual tradition that we undertake an analysis of the economic determinants of drunk driving qua illegal behavior. …

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