News Release

Immediate license suspension for DWI saves 800 lives each year

26-year comprehensive study is the first to measure reduced fatalities across many states

Peer-Reviewed Publication


WASHINGTON, DC, July 24, 2007 -- State laws that require immediate suspension of the driver’s license for failing an alcohol breath test have had a deterrent effect on drunk driving and saved 800 lives from fatal crashes each year, new research shows. However, laws that suspend licenses or impose fines or jail sentences after conviction have little noticeable deterrent effect, according to one of the most comprehensive studies on the impact of drunk driving laws in the United States.

“The threat of immediate suspension of the driver’s license is a larger deterrent than the threat of more severe penalties that may occur at a later date. It has reduced fatalities from car crashes involving light, moderate and heavy drinkers,” according to study lead author Alexander C. Wagenaar, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, College of Medicine.

Wagenaar’s study, published in the August 2007 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Substance Abuse Research Program (SAPRP). The study looked at monthly fatal alcohol-related car crashes from January 1976 to December 2002 across 46 states that changed their laws on driving while intoxicated (DWI). The study compared effects on fatal crashes of immediate suspensions with post-conviction suspensions of driver’s licenses.

“Laws that allow a police officer to immediately suspend the license of a driver who fails a breath test have a deterrent effect across the entire population. This effect can be seen among individuals who have had just one or two drinks, among those who may have had a 6-pack of beer, and among those who may have consumed a dozen or more drinks,” Wagenaar said. Seventeen percent of U.S. adult drivers report driving after drinking each year and more than 17,000 individuals are killed in alcohol-related crashes per year. Nine states still do not have immediate license revocation laws. The nine states are: Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Tennessee ( ).

The study by Wagenaar and co-author Mildred Maldonado-Molina pooled the data from every US state that implemented license suspension policies between 1976 and 2002 and identified states that mandated immediate suspensions as opposed to those that mandated suspensions after court convictions. State laws were tracked from 1976 to determine all changes in every state.

The University of Florida researchers used data on alcohol-related crashes from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. FARS collects information on every traffic crash in the US that results in at least one fatality within 30 days of the crash. Beginning in 1982, FARS data also provided blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for fatal crashes. The BAC data were used to identify moderate drinking levels, clearly impaired levels of drinking that exceeded state BAC limits, and excessive drinking of extremely high BAC. The study accounted for differences across time and among states, such as number of drivers, traffic levels, changing vehicle mix, auto safety standards, safety belt laws, speed limit changes, and many others.

Previous studies have looked at the deterrent effect of drivers’ license suspension laws on self-reported drinking behavior and intention to drive after drinking. Others studies of car crash outcomes have relied on data from individual states across short periods of time.


The Substance Abuse Policy Research Program ( of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funds research into policies related to alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 30 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. Helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need—the Foundation expects to make a difference in our lifetime. For more information, visit

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