This year, the Super Bowl will be played on Sunday, February 13th. Like many Americans, I circled the date on my calendar months ago. It’s a special day to enjoy with family and friends. It’s a day to watch the biggest game of the year while indulging in favorite football fare— buffalo wings, salsa and chips, and a cold beer or two.
Fifty-six years of Super Bowls have generated lots of impressive numbers. In 1995, the San Francisco 49ers beat the San Diego Chargers by a score of 49 to 26. That’s a combined score of 75 points, making it the highest-scoring Super Bowl in history. Carolina Panthers Muhsin Muhammad’s 85-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004) still stands as the longest passing play. The Pittsburg Steelers and New England Patriots are tied as the winningest teams, at six Super Bowl wins each. Every team strives for higher scores, longer plays, and more Super Bowl wins.
At the NTSB, like everyone who works in traffic safety, we strive to reach the number ZERO. That’s the number that matters the most—zero traffic deaths.
This year, the Super Bowl will take place at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, only five miles from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the very first Super Bowl was played in 1967. That year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a staggering 50,724 road users died on our roadways. Since then, some progress has been made toward reducing traffic deaths. But we are nowhere near our vision of zero. And the trend is alarmingly up in the last few years. According to NHTSA’s latest estimate, 38,680 people died in traffic crashes in 2020. That was the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2007. To put this in perspective, SoFi Stadium has a capacity of 70,240. The 38,680 preventable traffic deaths in 2020 would have filled 55% of the seats.
Super Bowl Sundays have regularly seen higher traffic fatalities over the years. A disturbing trend was revealed by a look at the 12-hour period (Sunday 6 pm to Monday 6 am) of five previous Super Bowl Sundays (2015–2019). A total of 244 traffic deaths occurred in those five 12-hour periods (a total of 60 hours) on Super Bowl Sundays. For comparison, the traffic deaths were 202 and 187 for the same 12-hour period one week before and one week after a Super Bowl Sunday, respectively.
It’s hard to say exactly why we often see higher traffic deaths on Super Bowl Sundays. However, alcohol consumption is certainly one factor. According to an analysis of NHTSA data, 46% of the 244 traffic deaths during the 12-hour period on the five Super Bowl Sundays were alcohol-related (that is, the police considered at least one driver involved in the crash to be impaired by alcohol, or the driver tested positive for alcohol in their system). What about the Sundays one week before and one week after the five targeted Super Bowl Sundays? Alcohol-related traffic fatalities were 74% higher on Super Bowl Sunday compared to the week before, and 82% higher than the following week.
There are actions everyone can take to prevent these crashes without dampening the enjoyment of the Super Bowl Sunday experience. Impairment starts with the first drink. The smartest action you can take is to separate drinking from driving. Make a plan before you head to a Super Bowl party, so you have a safe way to get home. If you’re hosting a party, check in with your guests to verify they have a sober ride home before they start drinking. Have the contact for a taxi or rideshare service on hand. Be prepared to offer your guests a place to stay overnight if no sober ride is available.
At the NTSB, we’re doing our part. Our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements includes the safety item, “Prevent Alcohol- and Other Drug-Impaired Driving.” NTSB has issued specific recommendations that, if implemented, would help prevent deaths and injuries that are attributed to alcohol impairment. They include requiring all-offender ignition interlocks and .05 percent or lower blood alcohol content limits (or .05 BAC).
The recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act advances some of the NTSB’s most important safety recommendations to prevent impaired driving. For example, the new law requires the Secretary of Transportation to issue a final rule within three years requiring all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with advanced drunk-driving prevention technology. This is a safety recommendation we made in 2012, and we’re eager to see it move toward acceptable closure .
I look forward to this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, spending time with my family, taking in all the excitement and fun the game (and sometimes the commercials) can offer, and enjoying our favorite game-day food and drinks. My family and friends will do our part to achieve the goal of zero traffic deaths. We will separate drinking from driving. I call on you to do the same.