By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate
“On behalf of all of us at the NTSB, I offer our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of the individuals who lost their lives in this crash. Our entire purpose for being here today is to learn from tragic events like this, so that they can be prevented in the future.”
Chairman Robert Sumwalt speaks these words, or some variation of them, with grave sincerity in his opening statement at every Board meeting, and, as we hit the height of this holiday season, I can’t help but reflect on the Chairman’s words, the accident reports I’ve read, and the survivors I’ve met. As families and friends gather to celebrate, socialize, and look back on the year that’s coming to a close, many will also be missing a loved one, some for an agonizing first time.
Regardless of whether they’re experiencing the first holiday season without their loved one or the twenty-first, I imagine this time of year is especially painful for those who have lost someone suddenly in a transportation accident or crash; particularly a crash that was preventable.
Many of the fatal highway crashes we investigate are the result of human error. In 2018, 10,511 of those human errors were the result of alcohol-impaired driving, which—not surprisingly—tends to spike during this season of parties and revelry.
Imagine that—10,511 families are missing loved ones at their holiday celebrations this year due to a human error that is 100% preventable.
At the NTSB, we issue safety recommendations that, if implemented, could prevent transportation tragedies from reoccurring. Our safety recommendations call for bold actions; that’s the only way we’re going to get to zero deaths on our nation’s roadways. We’ve called for actions like:
- Lowering the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level from .08 g/dL to .05 g/dL or lower, which Utah did on December 31, 2018. Utah’s law, if enacted nationwide, could save 1,700 lives annually.
- Enacting all-offender ignition interlock laws. Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia have an all-offender ignition interlock law. About a third of all alcohol-impaired driving fatalities are caused by repeat offenders; requiring convicted drunk drivers to install ignition interlocks on their vehicles would prevent them from driving after consuming any measurable amount of alcohol and would cut down on repeat offenses.
- Conducting high-visibility enforcement operations, such as sobriety checkpoints or saturation patrols. These operations place highly visible and proactive law enforcement officers in locations at peak times when there’s a high likelihood that they’ll see impaired drivers (weekend nights, in or near entertainment districts, etc.).
- Other safety recommendations included in the our 2013 Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving
Like many large problems, though, a comprehensive solution is needed to make real change. When it comes to impaired driving, a massive culture shift is required. We need to adjust our ideas about driving after drinking and take that option off the table, because when we say impaired driving crashes are 100% preventable, it really is that simple. Choose to drink or choose to drive. But never do both.
This holiday season, as you enjoy coming together with your loved ones, please take a moment to consider those dealing with the pain of an empty seat at their table because of an impaired driver. If your plans include alcohol, make the choice to let someone else do the driving. Keep yourself, your loved ones, and your fellow travelers safe to celebrate again next year and for many years to come.