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By W. Gardner Selby November 18, 2010

Austin police chief says Texas leads nation in drunk driving deaths

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo cut to the chase during an interview about a law that lets drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated return to the road.

"We're in the worst state in the union when it comes to drunk driving and drunk driving fatalities," Acevedo said in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman and Austin's KVUE-TV, Channel 24. "We lead the country in drunk driving fatalities." The interview aired Sunday Nov. 14.

Texas, No. 1 in alcohol-fueled driving deaths? We asked Acevedo how he reached his conclusion, then started checking national comparisons.

An August 2010 report posted online appears to support the claim. In 2009, Texas tallied 1,235 alcohol-impaired fatalities, according to the report by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which says the statistic reflects fatalities in crashes involving a driver or motorcycle rider with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 grams per deciliter or greater.

The 2009 Texas total exceeded by more than 250 the 950 alcohol-related driving fatalities in California, which was the No. 2 state in the dubious category. States rounding out this top 10 were Florida (770), Pennsylvania (406), South Carolina (377), North Carolina (363), Georgia (331), Ohio (324), New York (321) and Illinois (319). Texas also topped other states in alcohol-impaired fatalities in 2008, the report says.

The report also lays out the percentage of total traffic deaths due to alcohol impairment. Texas ranked No. 5 by this gauge, with alcohol impairment accounting for 40 percent of the 3,071 driving deaths in 2009. Four states had higher percentages: Hawaii, 48 percent of 109 deaths; Connecticut, 44 percent of 223 deaths; South Carolina, 42 percent of 894 deaths; and Washington, 42 percent of 492 deaths. Texas's 40 percent matched the percentages of deaths linked to alcohol impairment in South Dakota, Kansas and Rhode Island.

Though Texas last year experienced one of the country's largest reductions in total traffic fatalities -- from 3,476 deaths in 2008 to 3,071 in 2009 -- more people still died on Texas roads than in any other state. As with drunk-driving deaths, that toll is influenced by factors such as Texas's size, population and number of miles traveled on its roads.

In search of expert perspective on the meaning of such numbers, we reached Bernie Fette, a senior researcher at the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station. He showed us two other ways to compare alcohol-related driving deaths by state, based on the percentage of such deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled or on the number of licensed drivers in each state.

Online, NHTSA has posted state-by-state rates of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled for 2005 through 2008. We checked the rates over those years for the 10 states that had the most alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2009--and found that Texas's rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, ranging from .55 in 2007 to a high of .59 in 2006, exceeded that of all but one of the states. South Carolina's rate, ranging from .81 in 2008 to .91 in 2007, was higher every year.

The federal agency also provides information on the number of licensed drivers by state as of 2008. We divided the number of alcohol-impaired driving deaths in each state for that year by its licensed driver total. According to the resulting ratios, Texas ranked 9th nationally in alcohol-impaired driving deaths that year. States with higher ratios were topped by Wyoming, followed by Mississippi, South Carolina, Montana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota and West Virginia.

We also wondered how Texas compares in alcohol-related driving deaths when population is taken into account. We divided the 2009 alcohol-impaired driving deaths for each state by U.S. Census Bureau population estimates for each state. Result: Texas trailed 15 states in deaths per resident. States with higher ratios, led by Wyoming, included North Dakota, Montana, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, Delaware and Missouri.

So, it looks like Texas is not No. 1 for drunk driving deaths by every measure.

Still, Fette suggested, no matter how you look at the stats on alcohol-impaired driving deaths in Texas, the news isn't good. "If all of the measures rank at the top or nearly at the top, no matter what the (state's) rank is, it's a serious problem that deserves attention," he said.

Our take: Several statistical approaches show Texas behind other states in the rate of alcohol-related driving deaths. But it's also reasonable to focus on the sheer number of deaths linked to drunk driving.

We rate Acevedo's statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Interviews, Bernie Fette, senior researcher, Center for Transportation Safety, Texas Transportation Institute, College Station, Nov. 16 and 17, 2010

KVUE-TV, Austin, news post, "No license from DWI? No problem," Nov. 14, 2010 (accessed Nov. 15, 2010)

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, report, "Highlights of 2009 Motor Vehicle crashes," August 2010 and web pages, "Traffic Safety Performance (Core Outcome) Measures" for California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina (accessed Nov. 15 and 16, 2010)

PolitiFact Texas, research, ratios of alcohol-impaired driving deaths compared to population by state, 2008, and alcohol-impaired driving deaths compared to licensed drivers by state, Nov. 16, 2010

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Austin police chief says Texas leads nation in drunk driving deaths

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