Unlike last year when many holiday gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic, many of us will return to visiting family and attending holiday parties this year. Some may see this as an opportunity for a 2020 do-over and may overindulge on merriment.
The holiday season is a time of increased impaired-driving crashes due to these celebrations and gatherings. The President has designated December as National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, and it serves as a reminder that traffic fatalities and injuries attributed to impaired driving are 100 percent preventable.
In 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 10,142 people were killed in traffic crashes in which at least one driver had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 g/dL or higher. That number comprises 28 percent of the 36,096 traffic fatalities that year. Also of concern, NHTSA estimated a 9 percent increase in police-reported alcohol involved crashes between 2019 and 2020. These deaths are not abstract statistics. These were mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children, friends, and other loved ones. They are people who will be deeply missed at this year’s holiday gatherings.
In addition to alcohol, there are other impairing substances, such as marijuana, other illegal drugs, and prescribed and over-the-counter medications. These can all be as dangerous as alcohol for a driver. As we continue to understand more about the extent to which drugged driving contributes to fatalities and injuries, we are certain that the prevalence of this, as well as multiple or “poly-drug” use while driving, is on the rise.
In June, NHTSA published an update on research looking at drug and alcohol prevalence in seriously and fatally injured road users before and during the COVID-19 public health emergency. The overall picture is very troubling. In general, drug and alcohol prevalence among drivers seriously injured or killed in crashes increased during the pandemic. Significant increases were reported for drivers testing positive for cannabinoids and multiple substances. These are not the trends that we want to see.
The NTSB has issued specific recommendations that, if implemented, would help prevent these deaths and injuries. They include required all-offender ignition interlocks, .05 (or lower) BAC limits, and a national drug testing standard. Our 2021-2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements includes the safety item “Prevent Alcohol- and other Drug-impaired Driving,” with these and several additional safety recommendations remaining open.
Congress recently passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which advances some of NTSB’s most important safety recommendations. For example, the new law requires the Secretary of Transportation to issue a final rule requiring all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with advanced drunk driving prevention technology within three years. I am encouraged and hopeful we’ll see this technology incorporated soon, as it could be a game-changer for alcohol-impaired driving.
By exercising personal responsibility, you can do your part to prevent impaired driving crashes during the holiday season. It’s simple. Choose drinking or driving, but not both. Have a designated driver. Call a taxi or ride-share service. These basic steps will save lives. Let’s ensure there will be many more enjoyable holiday seasons to come.