DUIs, Fatal Crashes, and Regional Drinking Culture

Chicago’s a pretty safe city to drive in, but it’s got a drinking problem: a high percentage of fatal crashes involve intoxication. It’s a problem in the North and the West, while far fewer fatal, intoxicated crashes occur in the South.

A few days ago I mentioned some neat data about drunk driving in different major cities, and how Chicago, which is a relatively safe city as far as fatal crashes generally, shoots up the list on fatal crashes involving intoxication—and has one of the highest ratios of fatal intoxicated crashes to all fatal crashes in the country.

It was brought to my attention by Henry Grabar, who took another look at the data that perhaps sheds some light on Chicago’s DUI problem. 

Nelson also calculated which U.S. cities have the highest and lowest percentages of fatal crashes involving intoxication, regardless of size. Even with no population restrictions, New York and Memphis are on that list, joined by Birmingham and Salt Lake City. Five of the ten are in the South. Remember – this is not necessarily an endorsement of these cities as places to drive. Memphis has more fatalities per capita than all but two of the largest U.S. cities.

[snip]

And the highest, in which fatal crashes involve intoxication more often than not. Three are in Colorado; two in Wisconsin. None are in the South….

This could be something of a surprise, since the South, broadly speaking, ranks poorly in many so many indicators of deleterious behavior, from violence to physical health to teen births. But I grew up in the South, and my first reaction was: that’s because there aren’t many bars. Evangelical Christian culture has an outsize influence on public policy in the South, and drinking is frowned on, even though it’s obviously done. (“How do you keep a Baptist from drinking all your beer? Invite a second one.")

On the other hand…

It’s pretty amazing. The state I grew up in has no counties with more than 1.5 bars per 10,000 households. But if you go due west, out to where West Virginia starts to become as much Rust Belt as Appalachia, the density picks up. Over the state line in Ohio, it’s up to more than five bars. Going to bars just isn’t as much part of the culture in the South; if you want to stay out late, you go to Waffle House.

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