By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate
When I started my career with Mothers Against Drunk Driving 20 years ago, I never imagined I would still be advocating to eliminate impaired driving in 2019. I wasn’t so naïve to believe we’d have flying cars by now, but I did think that, surely in 20 years, Americans would shift their attitudes and behaviors to routinely separate drinking and driving. After all, impaired driving is 100% preventable with smart choices and planning for a sober ride home.
We should have zero fatalities when it comes to impaired driving, and yet, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that over 10,000 people die in alcohol-impaired driving crashes every year. That means one-third of all traffic fatalities are caused by impaired driving. What’s more, those numbers are limited to alcohol impairment at the 0.08-percent BAC level or higher. If we include all alcohol-involved fatalities, that statistic increases to over 12,000.
As if that number wasn’t bad enough, it doesn’t even include other drug-impaired driving. We don’t have accurate statistics for those yet because there’s currently no common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing (although NHTSA is making progress toward implementing this NTSB recommendation).
Impairment is impairment, regardless of if someone is impaired by alcohol, marijuana (for recreational or medical use), illicit drugs, or even prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Instead of seeing that attitude and behavior shift I had hoped for years ago, today, an estimated 14.8 million drivers report that, in the past 30 days, they got behind the wheel within 1 hour after using marijuana, according to a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey. The AAA survey also revealed that 70% of Americans think it’s unlikely a driver will get caught by police for driving while high on marijuana. Those folks are in for a sad surprise, as more law enforcement officers are being trained in the Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and the Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) programs, and many are being certified as drug recognition experts (DREs). This means traffic officers have been specifically trained to detect and identify impairment—by alcohol or other drugs—with a high level of accuracy.
The 4th of July is one of the deadliest holiday periods of the year when it comes to impaired-driving crashes. But it doesn’t have to be. Drive sober. Choose—or volunteer to be—a designated driver. Use a ride-sharing app or public transportation. There’s never an excuse to drive impaired by alcohol or other drugs. Don’t drive high this 4th of July.