Facing reality: the issue of drinking and driving in college towns

Blacksburg, Va., Feb. 20 – Downtown Blacksburg: The stretch of road between the intersections of Alumni Mall and Clay Street with South Main Street contains the 16 bars of Blacksburg’s downtown area, right next to Virginia Tech’s campus.  Photo: Sara Gordon

by Sara Gordon–

According to the Magnitude of and Trends in Alcohol-Related Mortality and Morbidity Among U.S. College Students Ages 18-24 study published in 2005, 3,360,000 college students across the country between the ages of 18 and 24 drove under the influence of alcohol. While there are no overarching statistics regarding whether these students got caught and potentially received a charge for Driving Under the Influence (DUI), the issue is clear: college students getting behind the wheel of a car after they have consumed alcohol.

As a university with approximately 35,000 students enrolled each school year at Virginia Tech, with nearly half of those students being of legal drinking age, the issue of alcohol-related incidents is much higher. This is particularly true in a town where most students only have to drive 5-10 minutes to reach their destination. 16 bars are located right in downtown Blacksburg, along with a multitude of beer, wine, and liquor stores also in close proximity.

Assistant Director of Virginia Tech Hokie Wellness, David Andrews, sees a common misconception among students believing that as long as they remain under the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit of .08, they are fine to drive. “There’s a disconnect between ‘don’t be drunk and drive’ and ‘don’t be drinking at all and drive.’ It doesn’t take much, like I said, to become impaired to some degree, regardless of [what] might happen legally or not,” he said.

Click the image above to be taken to a site for an interactive version of this infographic.

If a driver’s BAC is below the legal limit, their ability to drive safely is still impaired. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, “drunk driving” refers to driving with a BAC at the level where a person can be arrested for a DUI, while impaired driving means that a person’s judgment and response time are affected much earlier before they reach a BAC of .08.

Results of the most recent National College Health Assessment, which is completed every two years at Virginia Tech, revealed 22% of college students, out of the approximately 1000 students that responded, reported driving after consuming any amount of alcohol in the past 30 days and 1.4% reported driving after having five or more drinks in the past 30 days. Statistics from the Virginia Tech Police Department show a total of 62 DUI arrests made during the 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 school years.

Sergeant David Tribble of VTPD has applied for the DMV DUI Grant for the past four years, which allocates government funds to address the issue of drinking and driving to all of the local departments. “Virginia Tech has been able to get some of that money to pay for extra officers to be on the street, looking specifically for alcohol or drug-impaired drivers,” he said.

According to Sergeant Tribble, curbing the issue of drinking and driving all comes down to accountability: “You’re not going to stop people from drinking, but the main thing you want to do is get them to stop driving. If you’ve had a few drinks, don’t plan on driving home, find another way.”