By Christopher A. Hart
They 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.