By Dr. Robert Molloy
On the night of May 14, 1988, in Carrollton, Kentucky, 24 children and 3 adults were killed and 34 others were injured when a drunk driver, driving his pickup truck in the wrong direction on Interstate 71, struck their church activity bus head-on. The driver, whose blood alcohol concentration was three times today’s legal limit, survived, sustaining minor injuries.
In the nearly 3 decades since the Carrollton crash, the number of people killed in alcohol‑involved crashes has decreased. Smart, committed people have worked tirelessly for stronger penalties, high-visibility enforcement, advanced collision-avoidance technology, and education campaigns aimed at deterring alcohol-impaired driving. But more than 10,000 people still die every year because someone who has been drinking gets behind the wheel. The results of those drivers’ choices are funerals, hospital stays, surgeries, medical bills, and lost livelihoods, all of which are completely preventable. As we approach the 29th anniversary of the 27 deaths in Carrollton, 27 more people will die today, because of alcohol-impaired drivers.
On the 25th anniversary of the Carrollton crash in 2013, we issued a safety report, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving. We called on the states to take bold actions to address this problem, making safety recommendations in this report that, if implemented, would prevent alcohol-impaired driving. We recommended reducing the per se blood alcohol concentration limit for all drivers; conducting high-visibility enforcement of impaired driving laws and incorporating passive alcohol-sensing technology into enforcement efforts; expanding the use of in-vehicle devices to prevent operation by an impaired driver; and using driving while intoxicated (DWI) courts and other programs to reduce recidivism by repeat DWI offenders. Implementing any of these recommendations would reduce impaired-driving fatalities, and if any one of them can keep one impaired driver from taking another life, we believe the effort to enact them is worth it. If these recommendations had been in place in 1988, those 27 bus occupants might be living full lives today, and 24 families may not have experienced unspeakable sadness.
We make bold recommendations because the alternative—accepting the preventable 10,000 deaths each year on America’s roads—is intolerable. States that implement these recommendations will make it more difficult for people to choose to drink and drive, and that’s the action we need to truly “reach zero.”
Dr. Robert Molloy is the Director of the NTSB Office of Highway Safety.