The holiday season is a time of increased impaired-driving crashes. Accordingly, December has been designated National Impaired Driving Prevention Month to draw attention to the 100-percent preventable traffic fatalities and injuries attributed to impaired driving.
In 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10,511 people were killed in vehicle crashes in which at least one driver had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 g/dL or higher. That number comprises 29 percent of the 36,560 traffic fatalities that year. In other words, those 10,511 deaths equal about 29 deaths per day, or one death every 50 minutes. These weren’t just numbers, though. They were mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children, friends, and other loved ones.
Alcohol isn’t the only impairing substance that can increase the risk of a crash; illegal drugs and prescription and over-the-counter medications can be as dangerous as alcohol for a driver. Unlike alcohol impairment, however, the extent to which drugged driving contributes to fatalities and injuries is less well established, but one fact is certain: the prevalence of drug use—and, even more troubling, the use of multiple drugs—while driving is on the rise. Just this month (December 1, 2020), the NTSB held a Board meeting to consider the June 21, 2019, fatal crash involving a pickup truck and a group of motorcyclists in Randolph, New Hampshire. We determined that the probable cause of the crash was the pickup truck driver crossing the centerline and encroaching into the oncoming lane of travel, which occurred because of his impairment from use of multiple drugs. Of the 22 individuals in the motorcycle group (riders and passengers), 7 were killed. An additional 7 were injured.
In October, NHTSA published a report looking at drug and alcohol prevalence in seriously and fatally injured road users before and during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Based on data collected at trauma centers and medical examiners’ offices in five cities, before mid‑March 2020, 51 percent of seriously or fatally injured road users tested positive for at least one of the following: alcohol, cannabinoids (active THC), stimulants, sedatives, opioids, antidepressants, over-the-counter medication, or other drugs. Eighteen percent tested positive in multiple categories. Stay-at-home orders and reduced travel resulting from the pandemic did not, as you might assume, reduce the prevalence of drug use among drivers. According to the same NHTSA study, the proportion of drivers who tested positive for single and multiple substances jumped to 64 percent and 24 percent, respectively, after mid-March 2020.
The NTSB has issued specific recommendations that, if implemented, would save lives, such as requiring all-offender ignition interlocks, .05 (or below) BAC limits, and a national drug testing standard. Our Most Wanted List includes the issue area “End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation,” and several additional recommendations addressing the issue remain open.
During this holiday season more than in years past, we should strive to keep ourselves and our friends and family as safe as possible. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. But also, abstain from drinking and driving. Designate a sober driver. Call a taxi or ride-share service. These simple steps can save our lives, as well as the lives of those we love, so we can enjoy many more holiday seasons to come.