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Drunken driving: A $132 billion problem in America

Every day, thousands of drivers get behind the wheel after tossing back some drinks, usually without weighing the financial hit for American society -- and for the driver’s own wallet.

Every year, drunken driving kills about 11,000 people and costs a total of $132 billion in the United States, according to a report from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). That dollar figure includes money paid by federal, state and local government agencies as well as employers to deal with drunken driving, along with quality-of-life costs for victims and their families.

MADD's state legislative affairs manager, Frank Harris, says: “Drunk driving is still being highly subsidized by every American – by taxes, higher insurance rates and victims having to deal with the emotional toll of injury or losing a loved one.”

costs of drunk driving

Everyone pays

If drunken driving costs to society were paid directly, research shows that every licensed driver in the United States would get hit with a bill for more than $600 each year.

“That’s a lot of money,” says Ted Miller, senior research scientist for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a public policy research group that crunched the cost figures for MADD's “Report to the Nation."

So, what do the big-picture costs of drunken driving look like? According to MADD, the costs can be divided into two categories: direct expenses of about $61 billion and quality-of-life costs of about $71 billion.

According to Miller, drunken driving expenses include:

A. $32 billion in work-related costs.

If a victim of a drunken driving crash can’t work because of injuries, Miller says, those who pay the resulting costs might include:

• The employee who loses wages.

• The government, through benefits paid to an injured worker.

• Potentially the at-fault driver, through a legal settlement.

“We also looked at the value of lost household work, and the cost to hire somebody to do that,” Miller says. For example, a crash victim might need to hire a housekeeper if he or she was unable to cook meals, vacuum the carpets or clean the bathroom.

B. $12 billion in medical costs.

This tab includes the cost of emergency medical services at a crash scene, along with hospital and nursing home bills, doctor bills and prescription medication. The costs might be paid by the patient, by health insurance companies, by auto insurers, and by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, according to Miller.

C. $6 billion in property damage.

These costs include damage to vehicles, guardrails, signs and other property. They might be paid by auto insurers, government entities and out-of-pocket by the at-fault driver, Miller says.

Other expenses include:

• $4 billion in legal costs. This includes court costs paid by government and legal costs paid by insurers, plaintiffs and defendants.

• $4 billion in insurance administrative costs such as processing claims and dealing with fraud and abuse.

• $3 billion in other costs such as travel delays and crash cleanup.

More difficult to quantify is the estimated $71 billion in quality-of-life costs, which involve complicated calculations that put numbers on pain and suffering. If you count three injured people who each lost one-third of their quality of life as one life lost, it’s as if 26,500 people die each year in drunken driving crashes, Miller says.

Drunken drivers pay

Everyone pays societal costs directly or indirectly, but drunken drivers who are caught can face a big bill. Estimates vary, but experts say a typical first-time drunk driving conviction can cost $10,000 to $19,000 or more. For example, an average drunken driving conviction in Illinois costs about $16,580, according to the 2011 Illinois DUI Fact Book. Experts say repeat offenders can pay much more.

“It’s scary when you think about what the personal and financial consequences could be,” says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, a nonprofit group that helps the public understand insurance issues.

Here are some of the typical costs:

1. High-risk insurance.

A driver convicted of getting behind the wheel drunk might be moved to a higher-risk category with his or her auto insurance carrier, or could even be dropped and forced to shop for insurance elsewhere. Either way, premiums will increase, experts say.

“It could double or even quadruple your rates, depending on whether it was a first offense and what risk category you were in,” Walker says.

That could add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. For example, the Illinois DUI Fact Book estimates a total cost of $4,500 – an extra $1,500 a year for three years – in higher premiums.

2. Fines and penalties.

Fines vary from state to state, and could range from as low as $100 in some states to $5,000 or more in others for a first-time offender, according to a compilation of state laws prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For repeat offenders, fines can reach $10,000 in some states. In some states, offenders might get their driver’s license suspended or revoked for up to 180 days.

3. Legal fees.

Attorney's fees typically cost between $1,500 and $6,000 for a misdemeanor charge. However, they could reach $15,000 for a felony charge that requires a jury trial, according to Virginia DUI attorney Bob Battle.

4. Lost wages.

First-time offenders might get away without jail time, but may have to serve up to two years, depending on the state. “Courts vary tremendously, based on whether the judge will let people serve on weekends so maybe they can keep their job,” Battle says. The Illinois DUI Handbook estimates more than $4,230 in lost income based on a month in jail for an offender who makes $55,000 a year.

5. Alcohol education or treatment.

Some states require offenders to take an alcohol education class that can cost $300 or more. “It can be very pricy to take the class, and it’s often a requirement for getting your license back,” says Lilliard Richardson, executive associate dean at Purdue University, Indianapolis, whose major fields of study include traffic safety.

6. Driver monitoring.

An increasing number of states – now 32, according to the MADD report – require an ignition interlock device for some first-time offenders, and 15 require them for all offenders. The device, which will not allow the car to operate unless the driver passes a breath test, can cost more than $1,400, according to the Illinois DUI Fact Book. That includes installation, rental and monitoring for a year.

Many offenders also incur other costs, such as cab fare or other transportation if their licenses are revoked, and fees to apply for new licenses.

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