Progress toward Zero Substance-Impaired Driving Deaths on America’s Roadways

CheckpointBy Mark R. Rosekind

The NTSB’s release last week of three recommendations on substance-impaired driving represent a renewed commitment in the agency’s continuing effort to eliminate deaths and injuries from substance-impairment, the biggest killer on America’s roads. The recommendations focus on gathering needed data in three areas: improved alcohol testing, better drug testing and identifying the “place of last drink.” The Board will also consider technology-based recommendations on this issue at its December 11th meeting. These are part of the increased attention by the NTSB on activities to get drunk and drugged drivers off our highways.

While substance-impaired driving has been a concern of the Board for more than 40 years, with special safety studies and many accident reports generating more than 100 safety recommendations on the subject, the Board had not produced a new safety recommendation on substance-impaired driving in more than 10 years.

From the agency’s perspective, getting tougher on substance-impaired driving involves a strategic and data-driven approach that began early this year with gathering and updating the information the NTSB needs to make meaningful recommendations. Our forum, “Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving,” in May and a special investigation report on wrong-way driving crashes to be released after the December Board Meeting are key milestones in making updated and new recommendations that are the most effective they can be. The Board’s work will progress next year with a full substance impaired driving report acknowledging the 25th anniversary of the Carrollton, Kentucky, bus crash, the worst drunk-driving accident in the nation’s history.

All of this work is underpinned by placing substance-impaired driving on the NTSB’s 2013 Most Wanted List, representing the agency’s advocacy priorities to call attention to and support the most critical changes needed for reducing transportation accidents and save lives. It is so important that substance-impaired driving is one of only four issues from previous years that we selected to remain on List.

Last week’s recommendations are a key benchmark in the steps leading toward the goal of zero substance-impaired driving deaths. Although over 10,000 lives are lost each year in related accidents, some states provide inadequate data on the national calculation. And while there is compelling evidence that illegal drugs and over-the-counter and prescription medications are playing a greater role in roadway crashes, there are no standards or testing criteria for these substances. To address these shortcomings, the NTSB recommends that states develop better blood alcohol concentration testing and reporting guidelines; agree on a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing; and increase their collection, documentation and reporting of test results.

Lastly, the collection of place of last drink (POLD) data could focus training and enforcement actions on establishments that are serving under-age or intoxicated patrons. With POLD information, strategies that target offending businesses can be implemented most effectively.

Progress on eliminating substance-impaired driving involves a comprehensive and incremental approach that relies on better data to improve enforcement and save lives. On the night of May 14, 1988, a drunk driver with a .24 percent blood alcohol concentration killed 24 youths and 3 adults and injured 34 others on their way home from a church outing. The drunk driver, in a pick-up truck, was traveling in the wrong direction on Interstate 71 in Carrollton, Kentucky. Today, as we approach the 25th anniversary of this horrible event, the sad fact is this tragedy of lives destroyed by substance-impaired driving is repeated daily on an even greater scale. We know so much more now on how to address this problem and are making progress toward more effective measures that will one day eliminate this scourge from our country’s roadways.

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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