Tag Archives: Impaired Driving

Will This Holiday Weekend be the Deadliest Ever?

By Dr. Rob Molloy

NHTSA-buzzed-drivingThe American Automobile Association projects that more than 42 million Americans will travel this Independence Day weekend, five million more than on Memorial Day weekend. More travelers on the road mean an increased risk for a crash. Unfortunately, 25 years of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that impaired driving leads to nearly half of all deadly crashes on July 4th.

Every year, we celebrate Independence Day with family and friends, watching fireworks and eating at barbeques. And, every year during this time of celebration, more than a hundred lives are lost on our roads and highways. Just this week, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety analysis of crash data shows that more people die in motor vehicle crashes on Independence Day than any other day of the year.

In all 50 states and D.C., it’s illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher. Yet, over the July 4th period in 2014, 164 people were killed in crashes involving at least one driver or motorcycle operator with a BAC of .08 or higher. And every one of these crashes was preventable.

This year, the July 4th weekend extends from Friday, July 1, through Tuesday, July 5. We all have a responsibility to ensure that this Independence Day weekend isn’t the deadliest on record.

A variety of factors can influence the relationship between the consumption of alcohol and the resulting BAC level, such as a person’s gender and weight, the concentration of alcohol in the drink, and the rate at which one drinks. We know that alcohol slows down the central nervous system and affects a person’s cognitive performance, mood, and behavior. In general, however, alcohol’s effects are dose-dependent, meaning that alcohol’s impact changes or becomes more severe as more alcohol is consumed.

Impairment begins long before a person’s BAC reaches .08. In fact, it begins with the first drink. By the time a person reaches a BAC of .08, their risk of being in a crash is double that of a sober driver’s.

At that BAC level, the drinker is likely drowsy and their vision, perception, and ability to react are all impaired. In the U.S., more than 10,000 people lose their lives every year because a driver experiencing such impairment decided to get behind the wheel.

There is no excuse for making the decision to drive impaired by alcohol. This July 4th weekend, if your celebration includes alcohol, designate an unimpaired driver before you even take the first sip. If no unimpaired drivers are available, call a taxi or another for-hire vehicle. If you see someone about to drive or ride impaired, speak up, step in and take their keys. There are safe alternatives to driving while impaired, and we should all work to prevent impaired drivers from putting their life or the life of someone else at risk.

The NTSB supports the efforts of NHTSA, law enforcement, and community leaders across the country to spread the message that Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving this Independence Day weekend.

Dr. Molloy is Director of the NTSB Office of Highway Safety.

Law Enforcement: Partners in Traffic Safety

By Christopher A. Hart

Sobriety Checkpoint signThey are most often the first ones on the scene. They see first-hand the tragic consequences of impaired, distracted, or drowsy driving—and the unfortunate results of crashes to unbelted occupants. And, they often deliver the news to families that their loved one was killed in a crash—all while knowing that the crash was probably preventable!

Last month, NTSB Safety Advocacy Chief Nicholas Worrell had the honor of meeting with some of the outstanding men and women of the Palm Beach (Florida) Police Department. The NTSB and law enforcement share the common goal of preventing fatalities and injuries on our roadways. Law enforcement is on the front lines of America’s traffic safety efforts.

In the US, car crashes take the lives of more than 32,000 people each year. Operating a vehicle requires attention and skill. Without a doubt, bad behaviors—impaired, distracted, and fatigued-driving—should be avoided. If bad behaviors lead to a crash, the appropriate punishments should be levied. But, ideally, we must all work together to prevent this from occurring in the first place. Every day, the law enforcement community does just that.

NTSB Senior Highway Investigator Robert Accetta met recently with law enforcement officers in New Mexico. His discussions centered on impaired driving, including the increasing use of impairing synthetic drugs, and what we have seen from our crash investigations. He advised the group that the NTSB recommended stiffer penalties for those caught driving impaired by alcohol, including mandatory use of interlocks for all convicted offenders, and lowering the legal BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05. He also added that the NTSB is still learning about the effects of other drugs, particularly over-the-counter and prescription drugs, on the driving task. The increasing use of a variety of potentially impairing drugs makes combatting this problem particularly challenging.

Our common goal to prevent crashes became especially evident when Montgomery County (Maryland) police officer Noah Leotta was killed by a drunk driver while conducting a sobriety checkpoint. The death of Officer Leotta spurred the Maryland legislature to pass Noah’s Law, which requires the installation of ignition interlock devices on cars for drivers convicted of driving under the influence.

Annually, since 1990, the NTSB has issued its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. Our 2016 Most Wanted List includes issues that are aimed at preventing crashes on our nation’s roadways caused by alcohol and drug impairment, distraction, fatigue, and lack of adequate occupant protection.

Both drivers and passengers play a role in preventing crashes—and both the NTSB and law enforcement will never cease to spread that message. Drivers should practice distraction-free driving and be solely focused on the driving task. And passengers should support safe driving by not distracting drivers from the driving task. Both drivers and passengers should always wear their seat belts—no matter where they are seated. This simple safety measure saves more than 12,000 lives per year. Finally, to repeat an old but important mantra, drivers should not drink and drive, and passengers should not drive with those who have been drinking. In fact, the NTSB recommends penalties for drinking and driving, beginning at a .05 BAC, which we know can result in meaningful reductions in crashes, injuries, and fatalities.

Every day, in communities across the country, law enforcement officers are working to end substance impairment, to make sure that drivers disconnect from deadly distractions, and to ensure that everyone is buckled up. Working together to improve traffic safety, the NTSB and law enforcement will continue to make a difference. But we need your help.

Be aware of your responsibility as a driver and passenger—and stay alive.

It’s As Simple As ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’

By Stephanie D. Shaw

Many of us grew up hearing from our parents, teachers, and television ads, “Don’t Drink and Drive” and “Drinking and Driving Don’t Mix.”

They were right: Alcohol impairment begins with the first drink. Yet, for some, that very simple message seems to have been lost. People want to know, “how much can I drink and drive?” The safe answer is, none. If you’ll be drinking, you need a designated driver, a cab, a ride-sharing service, or some other way home. Studies show that drinking and then getting behind the wheel is simply rolling the dice.

Earlier this month, when we released our 2016 Most Wanted List, there was a lot of media interest in how we discussed substance impairment in transportation.

There has been a lot of talk about the NTSB’s recommendation to lower the legal BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05, a recommendation that we first made in our 2013 report, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving.

Many of the news stories following our Most Wanted List announcement have focused on how much a person can drink before getting behind the wheel. Many have reported that for an average-weight man of 180 pounds, two drinks could mean a 0.05 BAC and for an average-weight woman just one drink. While it’s important to know how many drinks may get you to a 0.05 or 0.08 BAC, what’s more vital to consider after a drink or two is what happens to your ability to operate a vehicle safely at those limits.

Chart of effects of BAC levels from .01 to .10In certain circumstances, alcohol degrades driving-related performance at levels as low a BAC of 0.01. In fact, by the time a driver reaches a BAC of 0.08 factors such as lane deviations, divided attention, vigilance, and reaction time are all affected.

Studies of crash risk associated with alcohol use have found that at a BAC of 0.05, there was a 38 percent higher crash risk than for drivers with a zero BAC. At 0.08, the current legal limit, the crash risk was more than two-and-a-half times as much, and at 0.10, the crash risk was nearly five times as high.

Changing the legal per se BAC limits from 0.08 to 0.05 or lower would lead to a meaningful reduction in crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by alcohol-impaired driving.

But the change we really need is to recognize that while a BAC under 0.08 (or even .05) might keep you safe from a DUI charge, it does not make you safe to drive. The change to a lower BAC will help accomplish the ultimate goal – keeping yourself and others alive. But ultimately the focus should be on being safe on the road, not only safe from law enforcement.

Reaching ZeroIn the last 15 years alone, one-third of all motor vehicle crash deaths involved an alcohol-impaired driver. In 2014, 9,967 people were killed in a crash involving an alcohol impaired driver – one death every 53 minutes! That’s nearly 10,000 lives lost because as a society we accept that it’s okay to have a drink (or a few drinks) and get behind the wheel.

Your teachers, your parents, and those ads were right: “Don’t Drink and Drive.” Not “Don’t get stumbling drunk and drive,” or “only drink and drive if you’ve only had two or three glasses of wine with dinner.”

A change in the per se limit from .08 to .05 will save lives. Embracing the values our parents and teachers tried to instill, if it is ever universally accepted, will end alcohol impairment on our roads for good.

Stephanie Shaw is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB’s Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications

Make Safety a Priority on This Busy Travel Weekend

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

As Journalist Doug Larson put it, “If all the cars in the United States were placed end-to-end, it would probably be Labor Day weekend.”

LaborDayTravelers2015This year, AAA Travel predicts the heaviest Labor Day travel volume in seven years, most of it by car. And while it’s no fun sitting in traffic on the way to or from that last cookout, on your trip to the beach, or returning from your summer vacation, there’s something far worse to worry about.

With Labor Day traffic and – for some – Labor Day alcohol consumption come Labor Day crashes, injuries, and deaths. And each one is a tragedy that is as preventable as it is predictable.

According to a preliminary estimate by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), traffic fatalities were up 9.5% in the first quarter of 2015, compared with the first quarter of 2014. Part of that is that we’re driving more, for a variety of reasons, but the most troubling part is that the rate of fatalities – fatalities per vehicle mile – also increased.

If this year reflects what has been happening for decades, impaired driving will account for about a third of those deaths.

This Labor Day weekend, NHTSA will join with state and local law enforcement in a high-visibility national crackdown on drunk drivers. You may have already seen the campaign slogan: “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.”

Since 2000, almost 160,000 people have died in motor vehicle crashes involving impaired drivers. And while drinking and driving is a known culprit, drugged driving is increasingly becoming a problem.

To put greater emphasis on this issue, the NTSB put “End Substance Impairment in Transportationon its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

Education efforts, stronger laws, and high-visibility enforcement are all necessary to end impaired-driving. The NTSB supports lowering the current legal blood alcohol content, or BAC, limit in every state from 0.08 to 0.05, which is the legal limit in many other countries. Why? Because impairment begins with the first drink.

For drugged driving, better data collection will help us to better assess the problem and the interventions that will work.

What does this mean for you?

Chart of impairment levels by number of drinks to BAC
image via Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/drinkinganddriving/)

Don’t drive impaired by alcohol or any other drug – whether illicit, over-the-counter, or prescription. When a warning label advises against operating “heavy machinery,” such machinery includes a car.

If you’re uncertain about the impairment potential of a drug, don’t take chances – discuss it with your doctor.

The roads will be crowded this Labor Day weekend, with more than 35 million travelers expected. Do your part to keep crashes to a minimum – and don’t drive impaired.

Reducing impaired driving will help prevent crashes, but what’s the easiest way to help eliminate or reduce injuries if there is a crash? Your seat belt! If you are in a car – in any seat – be sure to wear your seat belt, and make sure others in the car do, too!

A Sobering Experience

By Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr

Photo of Chairman Hart and Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr at a  sobriety checkpointLast Friday, Chairman Hart and I, along with several NTSB investigators, observed a sobriety checkpoint in Lanham, Maryland. The checkpoint, which searches for alcohol-impaired drivers, was run by the Special Operations Division of the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Police Department (PGPD). 

For those who challenge the need for such an event, let me remind you: more than 10,000 people die each year from crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. For one of our investigators on hand that evening, retired P.G. County police officer Kenny Bragg, the checkpoint brought home to him one experience that changed him forever. He told me about the trauma of having to knock on a stranger’s door to tell them that a loved one had died after a crash involving alcohol. Sobriety checkpoints are meant to stop another family from having to experience such a tragedy.

And, I can relate.

When I was 9 years old in early 1981, the station wagon my mom was driving was struck by a drunk driver. My brother and I were in the back seat and fortunately, perhaps because we had been fighting, my mom made us wear our seat belts. My brother and I weren’t hurt in the crash, but my mom was injured even though she had her seatbelt on. The drunk driver who ran into us lived in my town and was known to both my family and the police, but he was never charged.

In those days, more than 20,000 people per year were dying in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. Mothers Against Drunk Driving had just begun to bring the issue of drunk driving into the national spotlight.

Since then, we have learned a lot about the impact of drinking and driving. All over the country, High Visibility Enforcement (HVE) efforts, which include the use of sobriety checkpoints, have helped significantly reduce impaired driving crashes. Well-implemented sobriety checkpoint programs have been shown to reduce alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes by about 20 percent in the communities where they are used.

This past Friday night, after the officers safely secured the checkpoint area with overhead lighting and safety cones, and officers took their positions on the line, I watched as vehicles began moving through. Within a few minutes, an officer identified a driver he believed to be impaired. It turned out, he was right! The officer conducted a field sobriety test and the driver took an alcohol breath test (breathalyzer test). His preliminary reading was .10 BAC; over the legal .08 BAC limit. 

I observed hundreds of drivers passing through. And, because of the efforts of the PGPD, 12 people were detained and their sobriety evaluated. Although 4 of the 12 were actually arrested, all 12 were found to have some level of impairment and were taken off the road. Who knows what could have happened if they had remained on the road? Maybe someone would have become a victim like my mother or, perhaps worse, like the victims Kenny visited.

Getting drunk drivers off the road is critically important, but it’s even more important to ensure that individuals who drink don’t get behind the wheel in the first place. Improvements in impaired driving laws and stronger law enforcement have had an important impact. Since 1981, we’ve seen the number of impaired driving deaths reduced by half, and our attitudes about drunk driving have changed greatly.

But more work needs to be done. That is why ending substance impairment in transportation is on the NTSB Most Wanted List of safety improvements, and why we are pushing for wider implementation of countermeasures we know will reduce drunk-driving crashes and fatalities.

As I watched the excellent work done by the PGPD, the road safety advocate in me recognized the long-term value of their efforts. But that 9-year-old little girl in me simply thought, “Thank you – somebody’s mom got home safely tonight.”

Acts of Love: A Father’s Choice

by Stephanie D. Shaw

DUI infographic showing amounts of alcohol to impairment levels.Andy’s first DWI charge came when he was 25. All his life he had seen family and friends driving after drinking, and this was not the first time he had done likewise.

Marriage had not changed his habits, and neither had his wife’s announcement that she was pregnant with their first child. In fact, that announcement began the sequence of events that led to his first DWI charge.

“I did what I thought I was supposed to do,” Andy says. “I went out with my buddies to celebrate. I was exactly three miles from my home when I was pulled over.”

A young college-educated professional with a good job, Andy had a lot to lose. But he had grown up thinking that driving after drinking, if a little risky, was normal.

Do you?

Continue reading Acts of Love: A Father’s Choice

Not One More

By Danielle Roeber

If I could travel back in time to visit myself during my senior year at James Madison University, I suspect that senior would never have imagined a career in transportation safety. I suspect she would not have imagined working for over a decade at the National Transportation Safety Board, devoting great attention to advocating for measures to prevent impaired driving. In that time, I have contributed to two of the agency’s impaired driving reports – the first, Actions to Reduce Fatalities, Injuries, and Crashes involving the Hard Core Drinking Driver, as a Presidential Management Intern (now Presidential Management Fellow), and the more recent, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving, in 2013. I have testified, given speeches, and drafted letters and other media content to push for NTSB recommendations from those reports. I have also met families of victims and been affected by their stories. Like many advocates, however, my passion was not necessarily personal. I had not actually known a family member of an impaired driving victim before the crash occurred. All that changed on March 20th.

In my senior year, through marching band, I met a freshman named Charlie. We were in the same section. Proving that it is a small world, many years later, I ended up working with Charlie’s wife. When Charlie and his wife had a little girl, I remember smiling at the thought of what Charlie would tell his daughter about freshman boys on the day he dropped her off for her first year of college. On March 20th, Charlie’s dad died in a multi-vehicle crash; the driver of one of the other vehicles has been charged with driving while intoxicated and death by auto.

The road of life can make some crazy turns. What are the odds that I would meet Charlie at JMU? What are the odds that I would read a newsletter, discover another JMU graduate at my agency, and that she would be married to Charlie? What are the odds that I would spend much of my professional career on an issue that would so directly affect Charlie’s life? There is no silver bullet to eliminating impaired driving, and no one person can tackle this problem by him or herself. But it bothers me greatly that in over 10 years of working on this problem, we continue to lose lives, about 10,000 lives each year. And I’m a little angry that despite my best efforts, Charlie and his family have joined a group to which no person should belong.

With last year’s NTSB report, some questioned whether “reaching zero” is practical. Can we truly “eliminate” impaired driving? I think yes. It will take a comprehensive effort. But even more, it demands full commitment, commitment to the phrase “not one more.” Not one more drink before driving home. Not one more impaired driving crash. Not one more preventable death.


Danielle Roeber is the Safety Advocacy Division Chief in NTSB’s Office of Communications