Twenty years ago, in the summer of 2001, I began my work to end alcohol-impaired driving at the Minnesota State Office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Over these 20 years, although so much has changed and there’s much to celebrate, we still have so much work to do.
Every state has a .08 BAC law. And in 2018, Utah became the first state to enact a .05 BAC per se law.
34 states and DC have ignition interlock laws that apply to all offenders.
I’m no mathematician, but I think that means that, while I’ve been working on all different types of impaired-driving prevention programs, laws, and studies, approximately 200,000 lives have been lost, and millions of people have been injured, as the result of an act that is 100% preventable. 200,000 lives!
We Must Do More
We have consistently lost around 10,000 people to alcohol-impaired driving crashes every year for the past 10 years.
As I wrote this blog, I became disheartened and frustrated. For 20 years, I’ve worked with colleagues to create messages for 20 Independence Days, New Year’s Eves, St. Patrick’s Days, Memorial Days, Labor Days, and on and on, and we’re still here, asking you not to get behind the wheel after drinking this July 4th, asking you to designate a sober driver before you begin celebrating, asking you to call a ride-share or taxi, or to be the one that takes the keys from a friend, family member, or neighbor so they don’t drive impaired.
Unfortunately, we know that more than 400 people will likely die this weekend, many because someone made the choice to drive after drinking. As long as individuals continue to make the choice to drive after drinking or dosing, and as long as life-saving technology and legislation is delayed, we will continue to push this message. Losing 10,000 lives every year. It must stop.
Ignition interlocks for all impaired-driving offenders, lower BAC per se laws, in-vehicle technology to detect alcohol and prevent a driver from starting a vehicle—all of these are possible now and would reduce impaired-driving crashes. However, these solutions wouldn’t even be necessary if people would make the choice to call a cab or a sober friend, or just elect to not drink or take impairing drugs if they know they will be driving.
Preventing alcohol-impaired driving has been on the NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements (MWL) for over 20 years and, at the rate we’re going, it will be there 20 years from now. But, at the NTSB, we are nothing if not persistent, and we will continue to advocate to prevent impaired driving for another 20 years if that’s what it takes. This July 4th, commit to being part of the solution, and help us retire this MWL safety item once and for all.
Impaired driving, in some form or another, has been on every NTSB Most Wanted List since its inception in 1990. And with more than 10,000 impaired-driving deaths each year, it’s hard to imagine ever removing it. We have made safety recommendations about impaired driving prevention since 1968.Yet the problem persists.
Part of the challenge we face at the NTSB is that we generally issue safety recommendations to entities, not individuals. If we issued safety recommendations to every individual ever arrested for impaired driving—even excluding those actually involved in impaired-driving crashes—we would be issuing impaired-driving recommendations to one million individuals per year.
Instead, we hope individuals will understand their personal responsibility as drivers and make smart and safe choices when they get in their vehicles. Impaired driving is 100 percent preventable. We have investigated many impaired-driving crashes, and for individual drivers, the lessons we have learned always boil down to a single word:
Don’t drive drunk, don’t drive after “a drink or two,” don’t drive after using even one dose of any impairing drug. But experience tells us that some drivers will ignore this message. They will get behind the wheel when they have no business being there, start the engine, and take their chances—with their own lives, their passengers’ lives, and the lives of other road users. Just counting arrests, drivers take that chance and lose a million times a year. About 10,000 times a year, impaired drivers take a chance, and someone loses their life.
While alcohol impairment continues to cause nearly three out of every ten traffic deaths in the United States, other impairing drugs pose a different, but overlapping, challenge. The 2013–2014 Texas Roadside Survey found that one in five drivers surveyed were using one or more impairing drug—licit or illicit, prescribed or over the counter.
Reduce the per-se blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for all drivers to .05 g/dL or lower
Conduct high-visibility enforcement of impaired-driving laws and incorporate passive alcohol-sensing technology into enforcement efforts
Expand the use of in-vehicle devices to prevent operation by impaired drivers
Use driving while intoxicated (DWI) courts and other programs to reduce recidivism by repeat DWI offenders
Establish measurable goals to reduce impaired driving and track progress toward those goals
.05 percent BAC
We recommended that states lower the legal per-se BAC limit from .08 percent to .05 percent or lower. We know a BAC of .08 g/dl is simply too high. In 2018, Utah became the first state to lower its legal BAC limit to .05 percent, and other states are considering following suit. This change isn’t only about preventing crashes involving drivers with BACs between .05 percent and .08 percent, though. Research shows that reducing the legal BAC limit from .08 percent to .05 percent serves as a broad deterrent, lowering alcohol-involved crashes and crash deaths across the board.
Interlocks for all Offenders
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, one-third of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities are caused by repeat offenders. States need to require drivers convicted of alcohol-impaired driving to use an interlock device. These devices keep a car from starting until a breath sample has been provided, analyzed for ethanol content, and determined to be lower than prescribed limits.
Impairing Drugs Other than Alcohol
Other impairing drugs present a different problem. Although we have investigated many crashes involving drivers under the influence of drugs other than alcohol, we don’t really know the extent the problem. Many of our recommendations surrounding impairment focus on finding the best ways to spot the problem. However, unlike for alcohol, no standardized drug-testing protocols exist for other impairing drugs, and there is no established limit or threshold to determine impairment by other drugs. Additionally, evaluating the impact of impairing drugs on drivers is challenging because many drugs impair individuals differently.
The Bottom Line
States, regulators, and industry can take action to reduce deaths and injuries from drunk driving. In terms of alcohol, we know that states and individuals can change the all-too-often grim outcomes. The question is whether they choose to. For drugs other than alcohol, it’s time we improve testing, especially as attitudes and laws change toward these drugs and they become more widely used.
We at NTSB will continue to advocate for our safety recommendations for education, legislation, and technology to end this deadly problem. But ultimately the problem comes down to individual choice. Choose to drive sober or designate a sober driver. You can drink responsibly, you can drive responsibly, but you cannot drink and drive responsibly.
May has been designated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as National Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month, to help motorists understand standard motorcycle driving behaviors and learn how to drive safely around motorcycles on our roadways.
In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @ NTSB, NTSB Highway Crash Investigators Kenny Bragg and Mike Fox discuss our investigation of the June 2019 collision between a pickup truck with a trailer and a group of motorcycles in Randolph, New Hampshire, its safety recommendations, motorcycle safety tips, and other considerations that drivers should take when sharing the roadway.
The NTSB final report for the Randolph, New Hampshire, crash mentioned in this episode is available on our website.
Crashes involving distracted drivers killed 3,142 people in 2019—up nearly 10 percent from the year before. A staggering 400,000 people were injured, some seriously and permanently. These numbers are certainly significantly under-reported, given police don’t always examine phone records after a crash and, although the problem of distraction is not new, the potential for distracted driving has increased exponentially with the introduction of personal electronic devices (PEDs). With an estimated 294 million smartphone users in the United States, our phones and other PEDs are a constant temptation for nearly all drivers. Our PEDs continually demand our attention, and our brains reward us for responding to their demands.
Although awareness is the first step in avoiding your own distracted-driving crash, we don’t believe awareness alone is enough to eliminate the problem. In many respects, driving distracted is the same as driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol—each is a behavioral choice that can result in death and life-altering injuries, not only to the perpetrators, but to many innocent people, as well. Solving the problem will require not only raising awareness and educating the public, but also enacting laws and implementing high-visibility enforcement.
We have investigated numerous distracted-driving crashes where PED use and distraction, in general, had tragic consequences. For example, on August 5, 2010, in Gray Summit, Missouri, a truck-tractor was traveling slowly or had stopped behind traffic on Interstate 44. A pickup truck merged from the left to the right lane and struck the rear of the tractor, initiating the first in a series of three collisions. The pickup truck driver was texting and driving.
Two school buses approached the collision site: a lead bus carrying 23 passengers and a following bus with 31 passengers. The driver of the lead bus became excessively focused on a motorcoach that had pulled over onto the shoulder, and the lead bus struck the rear of the pickup truck, pushing it forward and overturning it onto the back of the tractor. Moments later, the second school bus struck the right rear of the lead bus.
As a result of this crash, the driver of the pickup and one passenger seated in the rear of the lead school bus were killed. A total of 35 passengers from both buses, the two bus drivers, and the driver of the tractor sustained injuries ranging from minor to serious.
Education is critical to prevent distracted driving, particularly because there are still many myths out there about it. For example, drivers—and legislators—must understand that hands-free is notrisk free. People who would not dream of texting and driving or talking on a handheld phone while driving still take their chances when it comes to hands-free conversations. This purely mental aspect of distraction is called “cognitive distraction.” Additionally, many drivers believe they are good “multitaskers” and exempt from the dangers of distracted driving. The truth is humans can only focus on one task at a time. You can drive or you can use a PED, but you can’t do both safely. Look at this way: your brain is only a single-core processor, and there are no upgrades available.
There’s a big disconnect between the facts and many drivers’ actions. Drivers need to disconnect from devices while driving, except when using them for navigation. All phones have a do-not-disturb feature that can be enabled while you drive—use it!
It can take some drivers a long time to change their minds about risky driving behavior, despite mountains of evidence that a driving behavior is unsafe. In fact, some never do. And what about when drivers do change their behavior and choose not to drive distracted? All other drivers must make the same choice for the issue to totally disappear, because, unfortunately, even the most conscientious driver has limited ability to respond to the risks careless drivers expose them to. Passengers, and even people outside a vehicle, are relatively powerless against “the other guy.”
That’s why, in addition to awareness and education, we also need the right laws and enforcement to make real progress, just like we’ve done to address other risky driving behaviors in the past.
That’s why, in addition to education, we need legislation to combat this problem. Our recommendations, if acted upon, can further protect all road users—whether inside a vehicle or out—against distracted drivers by building attentive driving into the law. Banning texting while driving is a start. Texting is manually, visually, and cognitively distracting. We also support bans on handheld phone use while driving. Although we strive for bans on all nonemergency PED use that don’t support the driving task, and, as mentioned, even though hands-free isn’t risk-free, banning handheld phone use is a step in the right direction. We also believe that distracted driving should be the target of high-visibility enforcement, like impaired driving and seat belt use are.
There are those who believe it’s their right to use their phones whenever, however. But consider the risk-reward tradeoff—death, permanent injury to you or someone else, massive legal struggles, and for what? To tell someone what you had for lunch? To discuss a business deal? To text your spouse a reminder to pick up the dry cleaning? Think about it. Maybe you think you’re immune to the dangers of distracted driving. Maybe you think this message is geared toward all the other drivers on the road. Maybe you think the science doesn’t apply to you. Tens of thousands of similarly self-assured distracted drivers have thought the same and gotten it horribly—and irrevocably—wrong!
“Eliminate Distracted Driving” is on our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List because insisting on attentive driving will reduce injuries and save lives, pure and simple. Make the choice to drive attentively and encourage others to do the same. If that doesn’t feel like enough, consider supporting one of the many distracted driving advocacy groups that are working to eliminate this problem. When driving, no distraction is worth the risk.
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.
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.