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HIPAA Reportedly Stopping Drunk Driver Convictions

According to data collected and analyzed from a California healthcare provider, DUI convictions for drivers injured in road traffic accidents is relatively low, at just 59%. In these cases the drivers were over the legal alcohol limit, were in a hospital where blood tests were performed – the most reliable way to determine blood alcohol content – and yet 41% escaped without a conviction.

A study was performed by Dr. James F. Holmes from Sacramento’s UC Davis School of Medicine. Data was collected from 241 cases where driver’s had been tested in the hospital and were found to have blood alcohol levels in excess of 80 mm/dl, which is the legal allowable limit for driving in California.

The data suggested that the more severe the injury, the less likely it was that the driver would be convicted of driving under the influence, as was the case with individuals found to have alcohol levels under 200mm/dl in their blood.

In spite of the police supposedly being able to easily identify drivers that had drunk too much, the study showed that their observations were not as accurate as expected. The report indicates 11% of drunk drivers were reported to not have “not been drinking” by the police. Researchers compared hospital records with those of the Department of Motor Vehicles to determine which individuals were deemed to be sober.

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Regardless of law enforcement assessments, hospital blood tests showed that the average blood alcohol level for the patients was 178mm/dl, almost twice the legal limit for driving.

It has been suggested that the judgement of officers may have been wrong, but other issues were cited as possibly being responsible for the low conviction rate. Officers do not always visit the drivers in hospital for some time, and this gives alcohol time to leave the system and for patients to sober up and give the impression they have not been drinking.

It would still be possible to get a conviction by estimating the alcohol levels in the blood based on standard rates of breakdown in the body, yet the tests are rarely performed. According to the data analyzed, the alcohol levels recorded with the police present were 50mm/dl lower than the hospital’s data, as the blood was analyzed sooner when alcohol levels were higher.

One problem cited by Holmes at a conference in Las Vegas this week is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The Privacy Rule forbids the disclosure of medical test results and doctors are not permitted to disclose that information to the police. It is thought that this could be a significant factor in the low conviction rate for DUIs.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.