The police in Finland discover nearly 20,000 DUI cases every year. More than a fourth (28%) of these DUI cases are caught during the summer months. In nearly three fourths of the cases caught in summer (73%), the driver has used alcohol together with other intoxicants. Drunk driving cases vary a great deal seasonally every year.
However, the traditional summer peak has been absent over the two previous summers, during the coronavirus pandemic. In Finland, the highest number of drunk driving cases are discovered in early summer, especially in June, and cases of driving while under the influence of drugs are most often caught in spring and in early autumn. Sweden hits their peak in drunk driving cases in June, too, but drug-related cases occur more evenly throughout the year.
Hundreds of suspected drunk drivers were caught during the surveillance performed over the past Midsummer festivities, which focused on drunk drivers in road and water traffic. About 150 breathalyser tests were conducted per one suspected case.
Driving under the influence is related to about every fifth accident leading to death and every tenth accident leading to an injury. A person dying in a drunk driving accident causes costs of nearly three million euros, and injuries cost hundreds of euros.
Processing DUI crimes costs several hundreds of euros per case, both to the police and the judicial system. This means that the social costs of drunk driving are significant.
The number of people dead or injured by DUI accidents increases over the summer months. Looking at monthly averages, July is the worst month in terms of DUI accidents. Why so?
Based on the criminological theory of routine activity, changes to routines or other typical activities may also cause changes in criminality. Certain bank holidays or holiday times may affect people’s actions and behaviour. Hot weather may reduce social interactions, but increase alcohol use.
Holiday traffic increasing in summer is not a factor in drunken driving and neither does the police specifically increase DUI surveillance during the summer. In our view, the root cause can be found between the wheel and the seat – and perhaps, to some degree, silent acceptance of combining drinking and driving in our society.
According to Alko sales statistics, the sale of alcohol hits its peak (excluding the Christmas season) in June and July (> 8 500 l). The limit for drunk driving in Finland is 0.5 per mil and for aggravated drunk driving 1.2 per mil. The number of aggravated drunk driving cases is at the highest in early summer, and it has a fairly strong correlation with the victim numbers of drunk driving accidents.
Over the past ten years, the general trend in suspected drunk driving cases has remained quite stable. The number of drunk driving cases has decreased notably, but, unfortunately, drugged driving cases have simultaneously become more common.
The number of DUI cases caught by the police during the coronavirus pandemic did not decrease when compared to the years preceding the pandemic. Instead, when combined with drugged drivers, a record-breaking number of suspected DUIs, since 2011, were caught in 2020.
The share of drugged driving cases has increased steadily in police statistics since 2012, reaching their peak in 2020.
Last year, the amount of caught drunk drivers equals the numbers in 2014–2017, after which the numbers climbed noticeably.
The number of breathalyser tests performed by the police decreased clearly during the pandemic due to the restrictions in place, but the number of all DUI cases did not decrease at all. We also know that the use and availability of illegal substances did not decrease much during the pandemic, despite the restrictions on entry to the country.
Most discovered DUI cases are revealed by police operations, and extensive, bust-type breathalyser test campaigns are usually not the way for discovering most DUI cases when compared to the number of tests administered.
According to the Finnish Road Safety Council, one in 130 drivers in traffic had alcohol in their blood in 2018, and one in 770 drivers exceeded the limit of a DUI.
Last year, more than 17 000 DUI cases discovered by the police were recorded. In relation to the population numbers (per 100,000 residents), the number was 313.
For comparison, Brå data in Sweden showed that their equivalent number was 223. This means that 40% more DUI cases ended up in the statistics in Finland than in Sweden when compared to the population numbers.
About a third of DUIs in Sweden (35%) were due to drunk driving, whereas drunk drivers made up more than half (58%) of the cases in Finland. About 2.3 times the amount of drunk driving cases ended up in the statistics in Finland than in Sweden, and we had about the same number of drugged driving cases.
Aggravated DUIs have remained at a level of roughly seven thousand annual cases since 2014. Alcohol as the substance is very strongly present in these cases, and they are only rarely drugged driving cases.
Regarding “clean” drunk driving cases (no mixed substance use), most cases (64%) were aggravated last year. This percentage has remained roughly the same for the past decade, also from month to month.
The risk of reoccurrence among drivers guilty of aggravated drunk driving has been proven to be 2.5 times as high as that of other DUI drivers. Based on a recent Finnish study, the risk of drivers exceeding the limit of drunken driving for causing an accident leading to death is about 40 times as high as that of sober drivers. In cases of aggravated DUIs, the risk is 900 times as high. Being unaware of one’s state of intoxication cannot be a factor at this stage.
Between 2016 and 2020, about a quarter (27%) of all motor vehicle accidents leading to death that were researched by traffic accident research committees were drunk driving accidents, insofar as there was sufficient data available of the potential substance use of the driver causing the accident. Regarding these cases, most (75%) of drivers causing the accident had a blood alcohol content that exceeded the limit for aggravated DUI.
The general trend of reducing the detrimental effects of alcohol in society could also contribute to decreasing the amount of drunk driving.
Several measures for reducing drunk driving have been proposed, such as early intervention, referring the drivers to treatment, cooperation between the police and social services, substance use monitoring and substance abuse assessments, obligating doctors to report known cases, driving bans, supervised driving rights (limiting driving rights to vehicles with breath alcohol ignition interlock devices), penalties of forfeiture (confiscated vehicles), criminal sanctions, campaigns, education and surveillance.
Many drivers caught driving when drunk or under the influence of drugs would need a combination of several measures – extensive and multidisciplinary support – to gain control over their alcohol use and life.
The risk of getting caught is one way of reducing DUI cases. The Finnish police has set DUI surveillance at the centre of its operations for years.
Even though the numbers of breathalyser tests administered decreased due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the police continued the effective surveillance of drunk driving. The number of drivers caught proves the success of operations. However, improving the effectiveness of the police’s DUI surveillance is challenging with the current amount of personnel, and challenges such as this cannot usually be resolved through the actions of just one operator.
The DUI limits are higher in Finland than in Estonia and other Nordic countries, for example. In Sweden, the DUI limit in 0.2 per mil and the limit for aggravated drunk driving is exceeded when the blood alcohol content is at least 1.0 per mil.
Over the past decades, decreasing the DUI limits has been considered and even demanded several times. This measure may seem to be both free and effective, but it is actually neither.
One potential individual measure could be a mandatory ignition interlock device for first-time offenders. This could be in the person’s best interests, preventing them from repeating their stupid traffic behaviour. In the end, prevention of drunk driving requires many kinds of long-term measures, the risk of getting caught among them. It seems that it is more difficult to affect the aggravated cases, however.
It has been noted that a driver’s accepting attitude to driving while drunk is a decisive factor in the matter. Attitudes are an important part of traffic, and they have an especially large role in the safe traffic behaviour of individuals. The change in attitudes should also be made visible in legislative work, thus making intoxicants and traffic a clearly unacceptable combination in this way, too.
Most people (62%) responding to the Finnish Road Safety Council’s recent survey disapprove of driving when tipsy – i.e. driving while still under the punishable limit – and stated that they do not do this. On the other hand, the attitude towards the matter is surprisingly moderate, even though people seem to be aware that even small quantities of alcohol will affect driving abilities.
One in ten respondents approve of driving when tipsy and could even do it themselves. Based on the responses to the survey, it seems that surprisingly many people are okay with driving after having a drink or two or, alternatively, it is not considered to be an obstacle to driving a vehicle even if the situation is not that pleasant.
The Transport Safety Strategy presents seven strategic policies depicting the focus areas of transport safety work. One of these policies is that “attitudes in traffic must change”. The strategy text also states that “attitudes may have an effect on overestimating one’s own abilities, use of intoxicants, speeding or neglecting the use of safety devices”.
One significant measure that was defined was “maintaining and reinforcing the general negative attitude towards driving while intoxicated, launching an extensive national traffic safety campaign preventing drunk driving.”
The Finnish Road Safety Council and the supporting operators, such as Ministry of Transport and Communications, the police, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, accident prevention network and various organisations, were named as main bodies in charge of the attitude change. And that is good, as attitudes must be changed on many fronts.
The occurrences of drunk driving vary regionally, and, based on a Finnish study, factors such as alcohol sales, use of depression medication, level of unemployment and educational level have a varied regional correlation to DUI cases discovered by the police. These local variations should be taken into consideration when planning and coordinating the prevention work.
The statistics used in the text regarding DUIs are based on Statistics Finland’s Statistics on offences and coercive measures (Statistics Finland 2022a).
Pasi Rissanen Assistant Police Commissioner National Police Board of Finland
Mika Sutela Data Analyst National Police Board of Finland
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