Women just as likely as men to get into drunk driving crashes

Nick DiUlio

When it comes to drinking and driving, women always have been less likely than men to get behind the wheel while under the influence. However, new research has found that the DUI gender gap is starting to close.

According to a study published in the May 2012 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, female drinkers under age 21 are just as likely as underage men to get into fatal DUI crashes.

The findings are based on information from a government reporting system on fatal traffic accidents nationwide. Researchers compared blood-alcohol information from nearly 6,900 deadly crashes in 2006 with information from about 6,800 U.S. drivers who were part of the 2007 U.S. National Roadside Survey.

The study shows that female drivers under the legal drinking age involved in fatal DUI crashes were 7 percent more likely than underage men to have a blood-alcohol level at or below the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Furthermore, about 19 percent of women drivers under 21 who were drinking before fatal car crashes had blood-alcohol levels at or above the legal blood-alcohol limit. It was about 18 percent for men.

According to lead researcher Robert Voas of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, what’s most remarkable is that by 2007, underage men and women had similar fatal-crash risks at each given blood-alcohol level. This is in stark contrast to findings from just a decade earlier. Back then, underage men were almost twice as likely as underage women to get into a fatal DUI crash.

Overall, male drivers of all ages still drink more than women and are far more likely to be involved in alcohol-related fatal crashes, with nearly 18 percent of fatal DUI accidents involving male drivers compared with nearly 10 percent involving females. However, experts say this new study suggests that gap also may be closing.

Researchers don’t know the exact reasons why this trend has occurred, but several experts have speculated on possible causes.

Societal changes

According to Heather Sutton, who works for the Metropolitan Drug Commission, a nonprofit specializing in substance abuse prevention, the ever-changing role of women in society may be part of the reason more females are getting behind the wheel after drinking.

“Women are much more independent now than ever before,” Sutton says. “And that means some women are beginning to take on traditional male roles or male characteristics, which may make them more susceptible to risk-taking behaviors.”

Voas adds: “Young women who drink and drive may be behaving more like young men who drink and drive.”

Sutton says this trend among underage women could be an indicator of developing trends in women drivers 21 and older. She says that since women are taking on more personal and professional responsibilities — constantly juggling work and home life — they may be turning to alcohol to ease the stress.

“There are countless stories across the Internet of moms drinking wine while at home with their kids or having ‘cocktail play dates’ to take the edge off,” Sutton says. “Unfortunately, it’s become somewhat acceptable in our society to drink while parenting, and when you get behind the wheel — especially with children in the car — the results can be disastrous.”

A few more theories

Brian Massie, a health and safety advocate who specializes in binge-drinking prevention, offers a few additional theories about this troubling phenomenon: 

•  Lower tolerance. Men are not only larger than women, he says, but they also drink more and more often. Both of these factors lead to a higher tolerance for alcohol, more “practice” being drunk and more time behind the wheel while intoxicated. Women generally do not have the same level of tolerance and experience, which could account for the rising number of fatal crashes.

•  Sleeping pills. Massie says several studies indicate that women are more likely to mix cocktails with other sedatives. “The sleeping pill increases (women’s) intoxication level while not increasing their blood-alcohol content,” Massie says. “So while the study focuses on alcohol, the overall level of intoxication might be even higher than the data suggests.”

•  Drinking together. Women are more likely than men to go to parties and bars with at least one friend. As such, Massie says, there's an increased chance of having a passenger in the vehicle, leading to increased distractions. 

•  Pride. “Women are told they can be as good as a man at anything, and many young women may take this to mean they can drink as much as a man who weighs 100 pounds more than them,” Massie says. “It just doesn’t work that way. It’s simply a matter of biology.”

The insurance consequences

Few things are more detrimental to your driving record than a DUI accident. A DUI stays on your driving record for three years – and it translates into disastrous consequences for auto insurance rates.

Dan Weedin, an insurance and risk management consultant, says that being involved in an at-fault accident while under the influence almost certainly will result in a loss of insurance coverage.

“In the insurance company’s eyes, that’s a high degree of negligence and your policy is definitely not going to be renewed,” Weedin says. “And shopping for a new policy after that will be brutal. Companies are either going to deny you a policy or charge an expensive high-risk premium. (Driving under the influence is) not only incredibly unsafe but incredibly expensive, too.”

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