Maryland Report: Higher Alcohol Taxes Reduce Drunk Driving

alcohol taxesA new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine points the way to a method of saving lives that few people think of when the subject of drunk driving comes up: raising alcohol taxes.

The study, by researchers at the University of Maryland, took a look at vehicle crashes in that state at a time when Maryland increased sales tax on alcoholic drinks from 6 to 9 percent. The increase took effect in 2011.

The researchers found a “significant gradual annual reduction of 6%” in the number of drivers found to be impaired after being involved in crashes with injuries. The reductions were even greater in younger drivers. In the 15-to-20-year-old bracket the decline was more than 50 percent.

The conclusion: “Increasing alcohol taxes is an important but often neglected intervention to reduce alcohol-impaired driving.”

This study is far from the first to come to this conclusion. In 2009 the American Journal of Public Health published a study of an Illinois tax increase, and came to a similar conclusion: “Increases in alcohol excise taxes, such as the 2009 Illinois act, could save thousands of lives yearly across the United States…”

It’s also worth noting that the price of alcohol has declined in real terms. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine noted that “Alcoholic beverages sold for off-premises consumption are more affordable today than at any time in the past 60 years.” Lower price means more availability and more drunk driving.

Suppose all our other anti-impaired driving measures of the past 60 years – PSAs, increased fines and jail time, automatic license suspension, and ignition interlocks – had remained in place, but the price of alcohol had not reduced. No doubt many more lives would have been saved, and countless injuries prevented.

Drunk driving costs society in many ways, including the vast financial burden of hospitals, higher insurance, law enforcement, and the courts. Perhaps states need to decide if that burden should be borne equally, or if alcohol taxes should be employed to shift that burden away from society in general and onto those who do the drinking.