Drunk Driving Prevention SignAccording to a new study appearing in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the role of alcohol in U.S. traffic deaths is considerably under-reported, as Robert Preidt writes for CBSNews Healthday. I-Jen Castle, Ph.D., and a team led by Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., conducted the study by comparing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) with death certificate data from all U.S. states, according to a Journal press release. FARS contains data on the blood alcohol levels of Americans killed in auto accidents, the press release notes.

The study found that although more than 450,000 Americans were killed in traffic crashes between 1999 and 2009, the death certificates often did not list alcohol as a cause of death in cases where alcohol was involved. Preidt reports that in the 1999-2009 period, slightly more than 3% of death certificates listed alcohol as a contributing cause in fatal traffic accidents but that, according to highway data, 21% of those killed in such crashes were legally drunk.

The finding is significant, the press release notes, because it provides information about the role of drunk driving in the deaths of Americans under 45, for whom injury is the leading cause of death. Hingson, who is also director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said, “We need to have a handle on what’s contributing to the leading cause of death among young people.” He added that these findings will help in evaluating policies created to reduce alcohol-related deaths.

The study’s authors write that alcohol is sometimes not included on death certificates because it can take a long time to get results from blood alcohol tests, Preidt writes. Some states are much more likely than others to include alcohol information on death certificates, but the reasons for the discrepancy are not clear, Preidt writes.

States in which alcohol is rarely listed as a cause of death include Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, the press release reports; states in which it is commonly listed include Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota. “It doesn’t seem to be only a matter of passing laws: States that mandate alcohol testing for deceased drivers did not always do better when it came to reporting alcohol as a contributor on death certificates,” the press release says.

About half of states require blood alcohol level testing for drivers killed in traffic crashes. In the entire U.S., about 70% of such drivers are tested, the researchers said.

The study includes a chart showing the percentage of traffic deaths that were alcohol-related in each state between 1999 and 2009 according to data from FARS and from the states themselves. In Colorado, there were 7,059 traffic deaths, of which 9.4% were alcohol-related according to state records, but according to FARS, there were 6,809 deaths, of which 25.7% were alcohol-related, the chart shows.

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