A Sobering Experience

By Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr

Photo of Chairman Hart and Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr at a  sobriety checkpointLast Friday, Chairman Hart and I, along with several NTSB investigators, observed a sobriety checkpoint in Lanham, Maryland. The checkpoint, which searches for alcohol-impaired drivers, was run by the Special Operations Division of the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Police Department (PGPD). 

For those who challenge the need for such an event, let me remind you: more than 10,000 people die each year from crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. For one of our investigators on hand that evening, retired P.G. County police officer Kenny Bragg, the checkpoint brought home to him one experience that changed him forever. He told me about the trauma of having to knock on a stranger’s door to tell them that a loved one had died after a crash involving alcohol. Sobriety checkpoints are meant to stop another family from having to experience such a tragedy.

And, I can relate.

When I was 9 years old in early 1981, the station wagon my mom was driving was struck by a drunk driver. My brother and I were in the back seat and fortunately, perhaps because we had been fighting, my mom made us wear our seat belts. My brother and I weren’t hurt in the crash, but my mom was injured even though she had her seatbelt on. The drunk driver who ran into us lived in my town and was known to both my family and the police, but he was never charged.

In those days, more than 20,000 people per year were dying in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. Mothers Against Drunk Driving had just begun to bring the issue of drunk driving into the national spotlight.

Since then, we have learned a lot about the impact of drinking and driving. All over the country, High Visibility Enforcement (HVE) efforts, which include the use of sobriety checkpoints, have helped significantly reduce impaired driving crashes. Well-implemented sobriety checkpoint programs have been shown to reduce alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes by about 20 percent in the communities where they are used.

This past Friday night, after the officers safely secured the checkpoint area with overhead lighting and safety cones, and officers took their positions on the line, I watched as vehicles began moving through. Within a few minutes, an officer identified a driver he believed to be impaired. It turned out, he was right! The officer conducted a field sobriety test and the driver took an alcohol breath test (breathalyzer test). His preliminary reading was .10 BAC; over the legal .08 BAC limit. 

I observed hundreds of drivers passing through. And, because of the efforts of the PGPD, 12 people were detained and their sobriety evaluated. Although 4 of the 12 were actually arrested, all 12 were found to have some level of impairment and were taken off the road. Who knows what could have happened if they had remained on the road? Maybe someone would have become a victim like my mother or, perhaps worse, like the victims Kenny visited.

Getting drunk drivers off the road is critically important, but it’s even more important to ensure that individuals who drink don’t get behind the wheel in the first place. Improvements in impaired driving laws and stronger law enforcement have had an important impact. Since 1981, we’ve seen the number of impaired driving deaths reduced by half, and our attitudes about drunk driving have changed greatly.

But more work needs to be done. That is why ending substance impairment in transportation is on the NTSB Most Wanted List of safety improvements, and why we are pushing for wider implementation of countermeasures we know will reduce drunk-driving crashes and fatalities.

As I watched the excellent work done by the PGPD, the road safety advocate in me recognized the long-term value of their efforts. But that 9-year-old little girl in me simply thought, “Thank you – somebody’s mom got home safely tonight.”

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