Too often one hears of a tragedy involving a hardcore drunk driver, but the issue can seem too complicated to address. Even as national alcohol-impaired traffic deaths have steadily declined, hardcore drunk driving deaths have persisted. Offenders may be difficult to detect, prosecute and properly sanction and treat. Those who are apprehended often manipulate the judicial system’s weak spots and avoid appropriate sanctions and treatment, leading to continued recidivism.

Comprehensive countermeasures that target the hardcore drunk driving population are critical and have been cited by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as an immediate need on which the nation should focus. Strides are indeed being made as more successful tactics and programs are implemented in the fight against hardcore drunk driving. In this resource, the focus is on how judges can best contribute to this effort.

Since NHTSA began recording alcohol-related statistics in 1982, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities have decreased 52 percent: from 21,113 in 1982 to 10,228 in 2010. Despite this tremendous progress, hardcore drunk drivers continue to be over-represented in alcohol- impaired traffic deaths.

In 2010, 32,885 people died in traffic crashes in the United States. The estimated 10,228 people who died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes accounted for 31 percent of all traffic deaths (NHTSA 2010). Further, 57 percent of all alcohol-related fatalities involving passenger vehicles occur on rural roads. Also, the majority of impaired driving fatalities involved hardcore drunk drivers.

Statistics on Hardcore Drunk Drivers

While comprising a relatively small proportion of drivers, hardcore drunk drivers exert a disproportionately high human and monetary impact. For example:
  • It is estimated that while drivers with BACs in excess of .15 percent are only 1percent of all drivers on weekend nights, they are involved in nearly 50 percent of all fatal crashes during that time period (Simpson et al., 1996).
  • About one-third of all drivers arrested for DWI are repeat offenders and over half have a BAC over .15 percent (Hedlund and McCartt, June 2002).
  • In the United States in 2007, 25 percent of all drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes and 60 percent of all drivers involved in an alcohol-related fatal crash had BAC levels of .15 percent  or greater (FARS, 2007).
  • Drivers with a BAC of .15 percent  or above are 385 times more likely to be involved in a single vehicle fatal crash than a non-drinking driver (Zador, 1991).

A strong relationship exists between a high BAC and the likelihood of having a previous DWI conviction.

At any BAC level, the risk of apprehension for drunk driving is extremely low, depending on the level of enforcement and the method of calculation. Estimates range from about one arrest in 50 DWI trips to one arrest in 100 DWI trips. Consequently, many hardcore drunk drivers go undetected and aren’t reflected in statistics. Compounding the problem is that hardcore drunk drivers are highly resistant to changing their behavior.

That resistance is often characterized by repeat DWI convictions despite previous sanctions, education or treatment. Approximately 30 percent of all drinking drivers arrested for DWI have been caught in the past by police and sanctioned by judicial and administrative agencies (Wiliszowski et al., 1996).

Common Characteristics of Hardcore Drunk Drivers

Research continues to show strong links between substance use, DWI, criminal behavior, homelessness and underlying mental health issues. As this research progresses, so will the desire to institute programs that assess and address the underlying mental health issues that influence these behavioral problems.

More and more research has identified the fact that repeat DWI offenders often suffer from a number of disorders. In one study, in addition to a lifetime alcohol disorder, 41 percent of the participants had an additional drug-related disorder; 44 percent had a major mental health disorder that was not alcohol or drug-related (Shaffer et al., 2007). However, treatment for DWI offenders, which has been part of the criminal justice system for more than 30 years, most commonly consists of alcohol education and possibly some form of alcohol treatment only.

Compared to all drivers, hardcore DWI offenders are often more aggressive, hostile, thrill seeking and more likely to have a criminal record and a poor driving record (Simpson 1996). Multiple studies have shown the common characteristics of hardcore drunk drivers include:

  • High school education (or less)
  • Low incomes
  • Unmarried/divorced
  • Caucasian males
  • Alcohol dependency issues and
  • Multiple prior DWI offenses and many previous involvements with the criminal justice system

(Jones & Lacey, 2000; Siegel et al., 2000; New Jersey Division of Addiction Services Intoxicated Driving Program Statistical Summary Report, 2006)


“The latest numbers tell us people are not only making poor decisions and drinking and driving – they are getting deeply intoxicated before getting behind the wheel.” - NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland.