Are We Safer Today on America’s Roads?

By Mark Rosekind

Alcohol Aweness Month 2013 logoEvery 48 minutes in this country a person dies in a motor vehicle crash involving an alcohol impaired driver. That’s 30 deaths a day – lives ended, families torn, loved ones devastated. And as if the human toll were not enough, the annual cost to America’s economy from alcohol-related crashes totals more than $51 billion.

And one of the greatest tragedies is how unnecessary and preventable this is.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, held annually for the past 27 years to increase public awareness and understanding of the dangers of alcohol-related problems. This is one of the most critical issues in transportation safety. Far more people die on the nation’s highways than in any other mode of transportation and 30 percent of those deaths are caused by a driver under the influence of alcohol.

For more than 40 years, the NTSB along with policymakers, law enforcement, safety activists, and the public has struggled with how to stop alcohol-impaired driving. The agency has placed this issue on its Most Wanted List, conducted special safety studies, and produced dozens of accident reports generating over 100 related safety recommendations.

But until just four months ago, the Board had not made any new recommendations in this area for over a decade during a time when traffic deaths from all causes dropped, yet the percentage of those killed by a substance-impaired driver remained unchanged.

The NTSB is taking new steps to address this number one killer on our roadways.

In December of 2012, the Board recommended that all first-offender alcohol-impaired drivers be required to have ignition interlocks installed on their personal vehicles. This proven- effective device prevents an engine from starting until a breath sample has been provided, analyzed for alcohol content, and determined to be lower than prescribed limits. But only 17 states require interlocks for first-time offenders. The NTSB also strongly endorsed the continued development of a passive alcohol-detection technology. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety would prevent alcohol-impaired individuals from operating their vehicles by detecting alcohol in the driver’s system through breath- and touch-based sensors. Yet there is so much more to do.

The simple fact is the more alcohol you consume, the more impaired you become. Alcohol and the safe operation of a vehicle just don’t mix. Period. And it all begins with the very first drink.

Alcoholism and alcohol-related problems touch all Americans, directly or indirectly, as our nation’s number one public health issue. Currently, nearly 14 million Americans – 1 in every 13 adults – abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. Achieving major reductions in alcohol-impaired driving-related deaths is possible only if society is willing to separate the impaired driver from the driving task.

Alcohol consumption can impair good judgment and lead to risky behavior – judgment and behavior that lead to injuries and lives lost. One death or injury on the road due to alcohol impaired driving is one too many. It is time to do more.

Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D. is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an internationally recognized expert in the field of sleep and fatigue science.

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