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Robyn Robertson: Drunk driving offenders are not all the same

Drinking and driving has been widely recognized as a major social problem in Western countries for more than three decades. But, despite a general decreasing trend in the number of persons killed in a traffic crash involving an impaired driver, the progress achieved since the late 1990s has been nominal and the number of persons killed and injured in crashes involving drinking drivers remains high. Alcohol-impaired crashes continue to account for 25-35% of all road crashes in Canada, the U.S  and the European Union.

In light of these trends, increased knowledge and understanding of the profile and characteristics of impaired drivers, the factors that put them at risk for recidivism, and relevant treatment options can inform the activities of transportation, criminal justice, and health practitioners to better identify, manage, and address this high-risk population.

On average, impaired drivers of both sexes are generally aged 20 to 40, with many offenders being in their 30s. Relative to the general population, they are more likely to have less education and lower levels of employment and income, to be single, separated, or divorced. This finding is more pronounced among repeat offenders.

Alcohol-related diagnoses are also very common; the age of onset of drinking and family history particularly warrant attention. However, while such diagnoses are highly correlated with impaired driving offending, they are not necessarily a causal factor. Both male and female impaired drivers have higher levels of psychiatric symptoms relative to the general population so co-occurring disorders should not be overlooked during screening and assessment. Moreover, recidivism rates for impaired drivers of adult age appear similar following a first alcohol-related conviction.

There are also some important differences between male and female impaired drivers, although research comparing these populations on this dimension is sparse. Men appear to exhibit a higher degree of antisocial attitudes and behaviours, be more defensive about alcohol problems, and have more extensive histories of driving and other criminal offences as well as more prior experience with impaired driving.  In addition, younger males appear to have higher recidivism rates relative to females in this age category. Finally, women in particular experience more severe psychological and mental health symptoms and report greater involvement in drugs.

While it is clear that a wide range of risk factors have been examined in relation to the prediction of repeat impaired driving offences in the past two decades, the findings from this research are inconsistent in many cases and far from conclusive. There are only a small handful of common factors that have been investigated across several studies, however with regard to criminological research more is known about risk factors among repeat drunk drivers.

For these reasons, practitioners in the field are encouraged to take a broader view and approach to the use of these factors, and focus on the presence of a number of risk factors collectively as a basis to inform decisions, as opposed to the presence or absence of individual factors. Much more research on this issue is needed before definitive conclusions can be reached.

Perhaps most pressing in the field of research is the need to integrate existing knowledge stemming from diverse disciplines as a basis to explore and develop more holistic, robust and complex models of impaired driving behaviour that acknowledge the heterogeneity of this population. A core feature of this initiative should be to increase understanding of the interactions and effects of different characteristics of offenders. At the same time, greater knowledge and understanding of relevant risk factors that influence future offending is also a critical need.

Robyn Robertson

President and CEO

Traffic Injury Research Foundation

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility ( or any member.*

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