Testimony of Richard F. Healing
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
House Judiciary Committee
State of Maryland
Regarding House Bill 763
February 12, 2004


Good afternoon Chairman Vallario and members of the Judiciary Committee. It is my pleasure to be here in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations addressing hard core drinking drivers.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and made recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. However, in our 37-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Alcohol-Highway Safety Problem

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are this nation's most serious transportation safety problem. More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes. About 41 percent of highway deaths nationwide, and 40 percent in Maryland, are alcohol-related. During the 1990s, the nation experienced a reduction in alcohol-related fatalities; we were making progress. Since 1999, however, the number of alcohol-related fatalities has risen across the nation, in 2002, reaching 17,419 nationally and 265 locally.

The emotional toll on families is staggering, but drunk driving also has a financial impact. With the lifetime cost to society for each fatality at approximately $977,000, alcohol-related crashes cost society more than $17 billion. Those not directly involved in crashes pay for nearly three-quarters of all crash costs, primarily through insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delay. Clearly, much needs to be done to reduce this ongoing tragedy.

The Hard Core Drinking Driver

The Safety Board is particularly concerned about hard core drinking drivers, known to be involved in about 48 percent of alcohol-related fatalities. The Board defines hard core drinking drivers as individuals who drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.15 percent or greater, or who are arrested for or convicted of driving while intoxicated within 10 years of a prior driving while impaired (DWI) conviction. From 1983 through 1998, at least 137,338 people died in crashes involving hard core drinking drivers.

Most experts agree that drunk drivers persist in their behavior because these drivers believe that they will not be caught and/or convicted. That perception is based on reality. On average, drinking drivers make 1,000 drinking driving trips before being arrested.

In 1984, the Safety Board completed a safety study that included recommendations to reduce the problem of repeat offenders. Since the Board issued those recommendations, States have made efforts to address the alcohol-related highway safety problem, and considerable progress has been made in detecting, arresting, and adjudicating drinking drivers. However, the measures taken and the degree of implementation have not been uniform, and alcohol-related crashes continue to claim too many lives.

In light of the thousands of deaths still resulting from these crashes, the Safety Board again focused on drunk driving. In 2000, the Board issued a report that examined a variety of countermeasures for hard core drinking driving. The Board identified which countermeasures have been effective in the specific States that have utilized them and recommended a model program (attached) to reduce hard core drinking driving. The problem of hard core drinking drivers is complex. No single countermeasure appears to be sufficient to address this issue because these offenders require different approaches. We need a comprehensive system of prevention, apprehension, sanction, and treatment to reduce the crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by these drivers.

Today, I want to discuss two key issues pertaining to drunk driving. First, to make decisions, policy makers need accurate and reliable data to define the problem, and our DWI control system needs test results to identify problem-drinking drivers. Second, drivers with a high BAC pose a much greater risk than other drunk drivers and merit a significant intervention the very first time they are identified.

BAC Testing

Substantial commitments of financial and human resources are made annually in every State to implement or expand DWI countermeasures. Obtaining support, particularly at the local level, for DWI countermeasures is dependent upon demonstrating that DWI violations are a serious local problem. Complete and accurate information on the involvement of alcohol in fatal highway crashes is essential for acquiring such support. To allocate resources for, and to evaluate the effectiveness of, DWI laws and programs, each State must know both the level of, and the annual changes in, alcohol involvement in highway crashes. Such knowledge also is a critical prerequisite to the planning and implementation of effective countermeasures. The Safety Board recognized the value of testing drivers involved in fatal crashes nearly 20 years ago, when it recommended that Maryland and the other States require alcohol testing of all drivers involved in fatal highway crashes.

The national proportion of drivers involved in fatal crashes who are tested for alcohol has increased from about 41 percent in 1982 to about 50 percent in 2002. Maryland's testing rate of drivers involved in fatal crashes has remained stagnant, going from just under 42 percent in 1982 to just over 42 percent in 2002. With such low testing rates, particularly for surviving drivers, it is entirely likely that more people are killed from alcohol-related crashes than estimated. The scope of the problem may well be larger than we all think.

Repeat offenders, those familiar with the system, whether previously convicted or diverted, are more likely to refuse a test than first offenders. By refusing the test, a repeat offender essentially opts himself out of the system. The lack of a valid test result robs the State of a valuable piece of information in identifying those most in need of a significant intervention and substantially weakens the system for preventing alcohol-related fatalities. Sanctions for refusal need to be increased, and police need authority to demand a test.

To ensure that BAC test results are obtained, House Bill 763 proposes effective countermeasures, including imposing a longer license suspension for test refusal than for failing the BAC test. Such measures will help provide accurate and reliable data on the drunk driving problem in Maryland. The Safety Board supports House Bill 763.

Drivers with High Blood Alcohol Content

Drivers with a high BAC, 0.15 percent or greater, require strong intervention similar to that ordinarily prescribed for repeat offenders. Those who reach this high BAC level have consumed large amounts of alcohol, much more than is considered to be social or responsible drinking. Research has found that drivers with a high BAC are at a substantially greater risk of being involved in a fatal crash. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has estimated that the relative fatality risk for drivers in single-vehicle crashes with a high BAC is 385 times that of a zero-BAC driver and for male drivers the risk is 607 times that of a sober driver.

One Virginia crash illustrates the risks created by high BAC drivers. On September 22, 1998, Phillip Coakley crashed his BMW into a mother and daughter walking in a Virginia Beach neighborhood. Both mother and daughter were injured; the daughter was propelled into the air for more than 20 feet before landing. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Coakley had a BAC of 0.16 percent.

At least 30 States have laws providing for an "extreme" or "aggravated" DWI offense; 11 States define the extreme DWI offense as the drivers having a BAC of 0.15 percent. House Bill 763 addresses high BAC drivers by creating enhanced penalties for individuals who have a BAC level of 0.15 percent.

Conclusion

Based on the last five years of alcohol-related fatalities, it seems clear that the DWI control system in Maryland is not working to the degree needed to reduce these preventable tragedies. The Safety Board urges you to take action on these and other life-saving measures this year.

Thank you for allowing the Safety Board to testify about legislation that you can enact to save lives on streets and highways in Maryland. I would be pleased to answer any questions that you may have.

HARD CORE DRINKING DRIVER MODEL PROGRAM