April 26, 2023

The Psychological Factors Behind DUI

Why do people drink and drive? Let's explore the psychological factors contributing to drunk driving, such as addiction, stress, and poor decision-making skills.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Dane Perikly

Director of Virtual Services & DUI Education

Last Update on June 5, 2023

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What are the psychological factors behind DUI? Why do people drink and drive? This article explores the psychological factors contributing to drunk driving, such as addiction, stress, and poor decision-making skills.

DUI: What Are The Consequences?

Driving under the influence (DUI) is a severe criminal offense when an individual operates a motorized vehicle while their blood alcohol content (BAC) is above the legal limit.

In addition to driving under the influence of alcohol, DUI may also refer to driving under the influence of drugs. 

The consequences of a DUI are far-reaching, including prison time, license suspension, and heavy financial penalties such as fines and court costs.

Even those who don’t spend time behind bars often suffer from lost wages related to missed work, higher insurance rates, and other harsh repercussions that can follow someone long after their sentence is served.

All drivers should take care to avoid DUI as they can have devastating impacts on their life.

But despite the consequences, people still take the risks. So why do people drink and drive? 

Psychological Risk Factors: Substance Abuse

Addiction and substance abuse are serious health problems that can devastate people’s lives. 

Addiction is a compulsive reliance on a behavior or substance, such as drugs or alcohol, despite the adverse physical, psychological, social, and financial consequences it causes.

Substance abuse involves regularly consuming certain psychoactive substances in excess. This could be anything from alcohol to street drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Both addiction and substance abuse can lead to numerous severe health issues, including organ damage, hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, depression, and even death.

Fortunately, recovery from these challenges is possible if sufferers receive professional help before becoming too entrenched in the addiction and substance abuse cycle.

How substance abuse Contributes to DUI

The correlation between addiction and driving under the influence (DUI) is one that cannot be ignored. 

It has been well-documented that alcohol and drug use can often lead to impaired judgment, slower reflexes, and impaired sense of coordination.

Unfortunately, this leads to many individuals getting behind the wheel, unaware of the risks and dangers associated with drunk driving or under the influence of a substance.

Further adding to this issue is that people suffering from addictions related to drugs or alcohol will be more likely to engage in activities such as drinking and driving on a regular basis, thus putting themselves and anyone else on the road at risk.

Therefore, it can be said that addiction is undoubtedly one of the major contributing factors to DUI statistical numbers increasing across the globe with each passing year.

How Addiction Affects Decision-Making and Impulse Control

Addiction is a chronic condition that impairs a person’s ability to make decisions, manage impulses1, and control behavior.

When someone struggles with substance abuse, impaired decision-making can lead to high-risk behaviors like driving under the influence.

In this situation, the person cannot correctly identify risks and dangers due to their addiction-altered brain chemistry and impaired judgment.

This impediment can increase the risk of causing property damage or injury and puts the person at a higher risk of legal ramifications or even death.

Therefore, acknowledging this harmful behavior and seeking treatment is essential to improving decision-making abilities to reduce risky habits such as drunk driving.

Real-Life Examples of the Impact of Addiction on DUI

The impact addiction can have on DUIs cannot be overstated. 

Studies across the board have found that alcohol abuse and other addictions are significantly more likely than other factors to be behind someone’s decision to get behind the wheel while intoxicated, thus increasing their risk of being in an accident or otherwise causing severe harm.

According to research conducted in 2019, 25- 30% of drivers with prior convictions for DUI admitted that those charges were directly linked to their substance abuse issue.

This issue affects people of all races, gender identities, and ages, making adequate support and treatment for addiction crucial for reducing the rate of DUI instances in real life.

Psychological Risk Factors: Stress and Emotions

When driving under the influence of stress or negative emotions, individuals are more likely to make impulsive decisions that they would otherwise not make while sober.
Stress and negative emotions can impair judgment and reduce an individual’s level of self-control, leading to risk-seeking behavior such as operating a vehicle while impaired.
In addition, these factors can decrease a driver’s reaction time and create an environment where drivers are more likely to operate vehicles erratically and take unnecessary risks.
Unfortunately, these behaviors increase the risk of collisions caused by DUI, resulting in significant losses of life and property.

Therefore, motorists must practice mindful driving by recognizing how stress and negative emotions can detrimentally affect their ability to operate a vehicle safely.

Stress and Emotions Can Impair Judgment and Lead to Risky Behavior

It is no secret that stress and emotion can hurt our ability to make rational decisions. Intense feelings, such as fear, anger, or anxiety, tend to increase during stressful situations and create a narrow-minded focus that impedes the flow of clear judgment or logical thought. Due to this emotional myopia, otherwise, reasonable people may engage in inappropriate behavior that can expose them to harm or risk. It is often only after the fact that we realize the foolishness of our decisions – when it’s already too late. That being said, it is crucial to recognize the signs of impending emotional disruption and take steps to regulate those feelings to prevent adverse outcomes.

Strategies to Cope with Stress and Emotions to Reduce the likelihood of DUI

With so much distraction now on our roads, it is more important than ever to be aware of the risks of driving under the influence. As such, it is essential to implement strategies for managing stress2 and regulating emotions to reduce the risk of DUI. Some simple strategies include taking a break each day to relax, avoiding too much caffeine or alcohol intake, talking through stressful situations with a trusted confidant, and engaging in calming activities such as deep breathing or yoga. Additionally, stay aware of your feelings by journaling and regularly checking your emotions. Lastly, when feeling overwhelmed, take a step back and actively practice self-compassion; be kind to yourself and recognize that everyone has an off day now and then. Following these practices can significantly help reduce the likelihood of getting behind the wheel after drinking too much.

Risk Factors: Personality Traits

Personality traits like impulsivity and sensation-seeking can trigger dangerous real-world behaviors, such as choosing to drive under the influence. Low Conscientiousness can also play a role in this risk-taking behavior because these individuals tend to be less conscious of the consequences of their actions. These traits are more pronounced among those already convicted of driving under the influence, making it one of the most significant factors for identifying those at a higher risk of being involved in a DUI incident. The combination of heightened impulsivity, a tendency for sensation seeking, low attention to consequence, and low decision-making abilities can create an ideal environment for driving under the influence. Appropriate steps must be taken to help prevent people from showing these personality traits from operating vehicles while impaired or intoxicated.

Impulsivity and increased DUI Risk

Impulsivity is a character trait that can have harmful consequences, especially when driving. Impulsive people often make decisions without thoroughly considering the risks associated with the result of their actions. This behavior can be hazardous when it involves getting behind the wheel of a vehicle after drinking alcohol, not considering how impaired they may be and how this will affect their driving abilities. As such, impulsivity contributes to an increased risk for DUI-related occurrences, putting the driver and others around them in potentially life-threatening danger. Those who are more impulsive should take extra precautions when it comes to drinking and driving since their mentality puts them at more significant risk of making unfortunate decisions.

Sensation Seeking and increased DUI Risk

Sensation-seeking is the tendency to seek out intense new experiences and requires an individual to exceed existing norms. This means those high in sensation seeking are significantly more prone to risky behaviors such as drinking and driving, resulting in a greater risk for DUI convictions. To make matters worse, those with a tendency for thrill-seeking are less likely to consider their vulnerabilities when engaging in activities that pose more significant risks for immediate harm or legal action. Unfortunately, those who engage in sensation-seeking behavior often fail to understand the consequences of their choices until it is too late. Thus, an activity linked to DUI charges often comes at considerable costs and serious repercussions.

Low Conscientiousness and increased DUI Risk

People with low conscientiousness levels are likelier to be involved in drunk driving accidents. This personality trait includes impulsivity, lack of planning, and weak Rule-Following, thereby increasing the risk of intoxication due to an individual’s carelessness or disregard for safety. Those with lower Conscientiousness are less likely to plan and make transportation arrangements, increasing the chances of impaired driving or being behind the wheel after drinking alcohol. Many awareness campaigns are aimed at potential drivers with low Conscientiousness, as they are among those most at risk for poor decisions when behind the wheel. To minimize this high risk for DUI, individuals with lower conscientiousness levels need to take a proactive stance by planning how to get home safely if they consume alcohol.

Risk Factor: Personality Disorders

Recent research has concluded that a person’s personality can impact their risk of committing a DUI offense. People with certain personality disorders are more likely to drive while impaired than those without a personality disorder. Studies have suggested that people with antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders are particularly prone to DUI-related offenses due to the impulsivity and lack of empathy associated with these conditions. Furthermore, some studies have linked the intensely negative feelings commonly associated with other personality disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, to higher rates of DUI occurrences, as intense moods often lead people to try to self-medicate through alcohol or drugs. Despite this data linking personality disorders and DUIs, it must be noted that in no way does having a personality disorder give any level of justification for illegal behavior.

Antisocial Personality Disorder and DUI

Anti-social personality disorder (ASPD) is a severe mental health issue that can have far-reaching consequences, mainly if it goes untreated. Research indicates those with ASPD are more likely to drive after drinking alcohol than those without the disorder, and statistics show they are disproportionately represented in DUI arrests and fatalities. Unfortunately, ASPD is only diagnosed after an individual has demonstrated several signs of impaired judgment or irresponsibility, such as violent behaviors or criminal acts – meaning people living with the condition often don’t get help until after they have committed a serious crime. Individuals seeking treatment or loved ones of someone displaying signs of ASPD must receive proper care from trained professionals to prevent tragic outcomes like DUIs.

Borderline Personality Disorder and DUI

Borderline Personality Disorder is a mental health condition that can leave an individual profoundly vulnerable to the risk of DUI. Individuals with the disorder have difficulty regulating their emotions and often experience turbulent mood swings, difficulty managing stress, impulsivity, and relationship challenges. These difficulties can lead individuals to turn to alcohol or drugs to calm themselves or avoid uncomfortable situations. It is, therefore, important for those living with Borderline Personality Disorder to have a plan in place for safe and responsible drinking practices if they choose to drink at all. Furthermore, DUI laws should be respected and understood by those suffering from mental health conditions so that they can look out for their well-being and take steps to prevent the tragedy of having a DUI on their record.

Risk Factors: Cognitive Issues

Driving under the influence is a serious issue affecting many people worldwide. It occurs when individuals consume alcohol or other substances and then operate motor vehicles, resulting in impaired driving.
Research suggests that cognitive factors can be linked to impaired driving and driving under the influence due to how mental processes are altered by substance use.
For example, individuals who consume alcohol may have poor decision-making skills and take longer to process information due to slowed reaction time and reduced depth of attention.
Substance abuse can also directly impact cognitive functioning, such as memory, concentration, executive function, judgment, and impulse control, potentially leading to DUI-related accidents.
Therefore, every individual must be aware of the potential risks associated with impaired driving to decide whether or not to go after consuming

Attention, Memory, and Perception

Cognitive factors such as attention, memory, and perception are intertwined with driving performance and significantly impact one’s risk for a DUI (driving under the influence) offense.
Especially when driving after consuming alcohol, distracted attention from conversations or phone calls can fewer people’s awareness of hazards on the road, increasing the likelihood of erratic behavior and, ultimately, leading to an accident or traffic violation.
Short-term memory is also impaired when intoxicated, preventing drivers from recalling critical elements of their environment, such as signs, turns, or speed limits.
Furthermore, impaired perception leads to slower responses which increase the odds of an incident that requires law enforcement involvement and could end with a DUI charge.
To avoid any legal consequences of drunk driving, it is best to leave driving entirely if you have been drinking – great responsibility comes with your driver’s license.

Alcohol and Substance Impact on Cognitive Function and Decision Making

Consuming alcohol and other substances can drastically impact cognitive functioning4 and decision-making, from decreased inhibitions to severely impaired mental processes.
At its most dangerous, this combination can impair judgment and increase impulsiveness. In extreme cases, users are more likely to engage in activities out of character due to alcohol’s tendency to lower inhibitions.
Additionally, alcohol consumption has also been linked to forgetfulness, memory lapses, and dangerous decision-making while intoxicated. It is clear that the combination of alcohol or drugs with cognitive functioning is a precarious one, and people should be aware of the risks before using any mind-altering substance.

Strategies to improve cognitive functioning and decision making

The consequences of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be significant and long-lasting. Developing cognitive functioning and decision-making abilities that support safe driving is essential. Strategies include taking regular breaks on long drives, thoroughly evaluating one’s current state before getting behind the wheel, and avoiding phone calls and other distractions while in a vehicle. Being well rested is essential – if you are feeling drowsy on a drive, consider taking a break in a public place such as a coffee shop or rest stop until you have woken up fully. When drinking or consuming drugs, remember to account for how your body will react hours later; this becomes particularly important if you plan to drive somewhere after indulging. With these strategies, one can be proactive about staying safe on the roads.

Risk Factors: Social and Cultural

Driving under the influence (DUI) is a severe problem with dangerous, long-term consequences, but it often results from social pressures and cultural norms. Too often, people in certain circles pressure each other to behave recklessly on nights out, whether drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or driving without caution. Such peer pressure can lead to complicated situations to say no to, even if the long-term risks are clear. Furthermore, certain cultures may glorify irresponsible behavior by having a lenient attitude towards driving after drinking alcohol and encourage it amongst its members as part of their social life. This entrenched acceptance can make it more difficult for those within the group to stand against doing something so socially accepted, even if it goes against their better judgment and invites serious risk.

Attitude Towards Alcohol & Substance Use

Alcohol and substance use has long had a deep-rooted influence on society. Our attitudes5 towards alcohol and drug use have been significantly shaped by various factors, from moral values to cultural norms. These attitudes can directly impact DUI rates, as our beliefs about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are believed to be linked to our likelihood of participating in risky behaviors. As drinking is more socially accepted, we view impaired driving as less severe or dangerous than alternatives such as not drinking at all. Therefore, if society wants to reduce DUI rates, it must begin by changing its attitude and outlook on alcohol consumption within the context of public safety.

Examples of Cultural Factors

Social and cultural factors such as peer pressure and legal consequences can profoundly affect someone’s choice to drive poorly. For instance, if a person with a history of DUIs is surrounded by people who discourage substance abuse, they may be less likely to drive under the influence than those in an environment that facilitates such behavior. Additionally, the availability of public transportation, or lack thereof, impacts whether a person makes the riskier decision to drive while intoxicated. Other influential factors include an attachment to drinking rituals and traditions, perceived benefits of drinking, gaming environments that encourage alcohol consumption, pressure to show machismo or bravado through drinking behaviors, and picturesque depictions of impaired driving in movies and television shows. Above all else, communities need to establish and propagate consistent messages about the risks associated with DUI to help cultivate awareness and reduce dangerous behavior.

DUI Prevention and Treatment

Drunk driving is an ongoing challenge that has captivated the attention of states for decades. Prevention strategies for addressing this problem include education about the risks associated with drinking and driving, increased enforcement of existing DUI laws, and using technology to help identify drivers under the influence. Education can involve campaigns targeting specific age groups or disseminating evidence-based research to reframe how individuals think about impaired driving. Enhanced enforcement can be implemented through sobriety checkpoints and stricter consequences for those caught drinking and driving. Finally, emerging technology like driver alcohol detection systems offers innovative solutions that could impact roadway safety. By proactively pursuing these strategies, lawmakers can help reduce DUI rates—ultimately contributing to more excellent public safety on American roads.

Addressing Addiction

Treatment for addressing addiction and other psychological factors contributing to driving under the influence can take many forms. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively identifies how one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are connected. Through CBT, individuals learn how to reduce their risk of recurrence by understanding how specific thoughts and behaviors may lead to DUI-related activities. Additionally, traditional substance use disorder treatments such as 12-step meetings can help address alcohol or drug addictions underlying a DUI offense. Finally, people charged with a DUI may be eligible for programs such as therapeutic courts or deferred sentences to help them stay out of the criminal justice system while they receive necessary intervention services. By taking advantage of these treatments, one has a greater chance at lasting recovery from any underlying issues related to their DUI charge.

Resources for Seeking Help after a DUI

No one should have to face the consequences of a DUI-related incident alone. Resources are available to help people facing several different issues related to DUIs, ranging from legal assistance to support for those struggling with addiction. Cornerstone DUI offers two essential services to address the societal issues of substance abuse and DUI: online classes for driving under the influence (DUI) and services for treating individuals battling substance use disorders. Our DUI program is designed to provide education, support, and guidance on changing such behaviors and an understanding of the consequences these choices can bring. Individuals struggling with various forms of substance use can also find comprehensive addiction treatment through our center. The goal is to develop the skills necessary to reach emotional, spiritual, and physical healing from addiction – we offer detoxification assistance, psychotherapy, educational courses, and more so that our clients can learn how to manage their substance-abusing behaviors. With our help and dedication, many have achieved long-term sobriety and sustainably recovered their lives.


[1] Dissecting Impulsivity and Its Relationships to Drug Addiction [2] CDC: Coping With Stress [3] Addiction, Drinking Behavior and Driving Under the Influence [4] Cognition is Central To Drug Addiction [5] Reducing the Stigma of Addiction Published: 03/10/2023

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Author & Reviewers

dane perikly dui writer headshot

Dane Perikly


Dane is the Director of Virtual services at Cornerstone. He contributes guides on DUI education so that you can understand all there is to know about DUI charges, education, and the overall process of meeting Arizona requirements after a DUI. He cares deeply about raising awareness of the dangers of DUI and illustrating the impact on victims and on those charged. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges, he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of conditions.

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