NPAMC Blog

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Comprehensive Plan to Move Towards Zero Deaths from Impaired Driving*

Guest Blog Written By: Deborah A.P. Hersman, Chairman, NTSB

Most Americans think we’ve solved our nation’s drunk-driving problem. We haven’t come close. Impaired driving is a national epidemic. Every hour, on average, 1 person is killed; 20 others injured. Over the course of one year, that adds up to 10,000 deaths and more than 173,000 injured, 27,000 of whom suffer incapacitating injuries. The NTSB has recommended a set of targeted interventions that will prevent crashes, reduce injuries and save lives. The recommendations call for stronger laws, swifter enforcement and expanded use of technology.

Every year, with those 10,000 deaths, there are at least 10,000 reasons to tackle this issue. We know there’s more, much more, that can be done. That’s why the NTSB has sharpened its focus on impaired driving over the past year. Last May, the NTSB held a two-day forum on impaired driving, convening participants from across the research, medical, law enforcement, and highway safety communities to address the status and effectiveness of existing and potential interventions.
We followed the forum by issuing safety recommendations calling for better testing protocols and data collection. Then, in December, we completed a special investigation report on wrong-way driving. We found that alcohol-impaired driving is the leading cause of wrong-way crashes. We called for using alcohol-ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders and for the expeditious development of in-vehicle alcohol-detection systems.

Our most recent report, adopted on May 14, 2013, represents the culmination of this year-long effort. The report reiterates the nine recommendations made last year and includes ten new recommendations aimed at eliminating impaired driving. These 19 recommendations issued over the last year apply to a range of driving populations and reflect the NTSB’s comprehensive approach to addressing a complicated problem. In some cases, the interventions are in use, but need to be expanded; for other interventions, we have identified innovative new approaches. But all these interventions are grounded in science and research, proven to reduce impaired driving, crashes, injuries, and deaths.

We recommend interventions that focus on the 4 million individuals who have admitted to driving after believing they have had too much to drink. Lowering the per se blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit, conducting high-visibility enforcement, and employing passive in-vehicle systems are designed to have a broad deterrent effect that will discourage driving after drinking in the first place. The fact is that impairment starts with the first drink; by the time a person reaches a BAC of 0.05, that person is 38 percent more likely to be in a crash than a sober driver. Fatal crashes decreased 18 percent in Queensland and 8 percent in New South Wales after those Australian states lowered their per se BAC limits from 0.08 to 0.05. A review of 12 studies evaluating the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints found that well-implemented and publicized checkpoint programs reduce alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes by about 20 percent.

There are also recommended interventions for those drivers who choose to drink and drive and are arrested. Authorizing administrative license revocation at the time of arrest provides swift enforcement. ALR laws are associated with reducing alcohol-related fatal crash involvement by 5-9 percent, representing at least 800 lives saved per year in the United States. In addition, expanding the use of ignition interlocks ensures that convicted offenders will drive sober. If all drivers with at least one alcohol-impaired driving conviction within the previous 3 years had used zero-BAC interlocks, approximately 1,100 deaths, or about 10 percent of fatalities associated with alcohol-impaired drivers, could have been prevented in 1 year.

Finally, for the small population who are resistant to changing their behavior and for whom other countermeasures are not effective, we recommend targeted programs that include Driving While Impaired Courts. A recent meta-analysis of drug courts and DWI courts estimated the relative recidivism rate for DWI court participants was lower than for non-participants.

It has taken 30 years for us to cut in half the number of individuals killed in impaired driving crashes, and since 1995, impaired driving deaths as a percentage of total highway fatalities have stubbornly remained at around 30 percent. With the numbers resistant to change, it is time to ask ourselves, “What more can be done?” The answer: To make a bold difference requires bold action. We may not all agree on every intervention, but we can all agree that alcohol-impaired crashes are not accidents. They are crimes. They can — and should — be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.

Deborah A.P. Hersman

Deborah A.P. Hersman is Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). NPAMC appreciates and commends Chairman Hersman and the NTSB’s strong leadership in transportation safety and ongoing efforts to reduce drunk driving. NPAMC supports many, but not all, of the NTSB’s recommendations. NPAMC takes no position on requiring interlocks for first DUI offenders and is opposed to reducing the illegal limit from 0.08 to 0.05.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Partnership on Alcohol Misuse and Crime (NPAMC) or any NPAMC partner. For a different view on .05, check out the article by NPAMC Chairman of the Board Steve Talpins: An argument for prioritizing drivers above the current illegal limit in the United States.