By Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
April is Alcohol Awareness Month and it reminds us that, while we have accomplished a great deal, there is much more to be done to reduce impaired driving in order to save lives and prevent injuries. One seemingly simple concept that is difficult (but not impossible) to implement is: separating drinking from driving. Health problems of all types related to alcohol misuse are a tremendous public health concern, but perhaps one of the most highly visible examples are the crashes that occur when alcohol is paired with driving.
I have worked for decades (in my home state, nationwide, and internationally) as a public health professional specializing in injury prevention until one day, almost exactly one year ago this week, I was given the honor of serving on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Our mission at the NTSB is to investigate transportation accidents, determine the probable cause, and make recommendations to improve safety. We are independent of all other federal agencies and we greatly value our independence, our credibility, and our transparency. In this unique agency, I have been at the scene of transportation accidents in many modes – aviation, marine, rail – but I know that, day in and day out, it is the deaths on our roads that claim the most lives and cause the most debilitating injuries.
Motor vehicle crashes account for more than 30,000 deaths every year and alcohol-impaired driving is related to about 10,000 of those deaths. In fact, every year, since 1995, 10,000 Americans have lost their lives because of drinking and driving. And another 100,000 Americans have suffered injuries each year. Without exaggeration, this should be considered a terrible public health crisis, as evidenced by the United Nations and World Health Organization calling for a Decade of Action to reduce road deaths. The good news is that we can all take action and, by working together, we can implement and support evidence-based, data-driven interventions to prevent impaired driving.
In 2013, the NTSB published a report focused on substance-impaired driving. The Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving report included safety recommendations in areas such as 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; using driving while intoxicated (DWI) courts and other programs to reduce recidivism by repeat DWI offenders; reducing the per se blood alcohol concentration limit for all drivers; and establishing measurable goals for reducing impaired driving and tracking progress toward those goals. We also have focused on interventions to prevent impaired driving (and indeed, impairment in all modes) as one of this year’s “2016 Most Wanted List” of Transportation Improvements. These interventions can be grouped into two general types – (1) targeted interventions that will address high-BAC and problem drinkers and (2) broad-based interventions that help prevent people at all BAC levels from drinking and driving. Both approaches represent important tools to prevent deaths and injuries due to impaired driving. Both approaches are built on the concept of separating drinking from driving – whether it is stopping someone who has already been driving while impaired (such as with enhanced enforcement or mandatory interlocks), or prompting people to make alternative plans for transportation in advance so that they do not drive when they have been drinking (such as the .05 BAC law). While the concept of separating drinking from driving is easy to understand, the challenge is to consistently put into practice these tools in a practical and usable way. But it can be done.
It can be done if the public and private sectors work together towards the common goal of preventing impaired driving before it happens. We are all in this together – from government agencies such as the NTSB to judges, prosecutors, attorneys, law enforcement, medical and public health professionals, researchers, companies, and businesses including the hospitality industry. Perhaps I am an optimist, but I think that we all want the same thing – to get people home safely. There should only be one enemy – and that enemy is an impaired driving crash.
We may disagree on the most effective ways to achieve our safety goals, but rather than competing to implement our respective solutions, let’s communicate with each other so we can take coordinated steps where possible – and perhaps, just maybe, one day we may even convince each other of some our positions, if it is backed by scientific evidence and public support.
For example, we can all agree that countermeasures to address high-BAC and repeat offenders are a priority. We also probably can agree that enhanced enforcement (whether through sobriety checkpoints or saturation patrols, as allowable by law) and in-vehicle devices to prevent operation by an impaired driver or using DWI courts and other programs to reduce recidivism have potential. But did you know that .05 laws with administrative (not criminal) penalties have been shown to reduce the number of impaired drivers at all BAC levels, even high BAC drivers? And that peer-reviewed studies in some of the 100 countries (such as Australia and Canada) that have passed .05 or lower BAC laws have shown a significant decrease in impaired driving deaths even while the amount of alcohol consumed per capita remained higher (even double) the consumption in the U.S.? Recently, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s nationwide survey reported that 63% of Americans are in favor of a .05 BAC law, so there also appears to be understanding and support among the public that this is a law to prevent impaired driving and will advance safety.
But this is not just about .05. It is about working together to come up with practical and efficient ways to implement effective solutions to our impaired driving epidemic. It is about separating drinking from driving. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. Taking a look back at history, we have made incredible advances in occupant protection but we should remember that not so long ago, states had no seat belt laws and cars had no seat belts.
I don’t expect to convince you today to accept all of our safety recommendations (although I hope you will take a look at our Reaching Zero report to learn more about them). But I do hope that I have convinced you of our willingness and dedication to working with you to prevent the terrible deaths and injuries associated with impaired driving. We can’t do it without you. Let’s separate drinking from driving. Let’s work together.
This blog also appears on the NPAMC web site. NPAMC has received permission from the NTSB to reproduce it on the NPAMC website. This permission does not constitute an endorsement of NPAMC by the NTSB.