Deborah A.P. Hersman, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
at the Century Council Holiday Kick-Off
Washington, D. C.
December 7, 2009
Thank you for that kind introduction, Chairman Molinari.
While I am pleased to be in the company of the Century Council and the Congressional Stop DUI Caucus for this Holiday Kick-off event, I regret that the need exists for us to gather together to address this perennial issue. The good news is alcohol-related crashes declined by 10% last year, but the bad news is almost 12,000 people lost their lives in those preventable crashes in 2008.
I will bet that most of the people in this room have been educated about drunk driving, and education can help change behavior. Almost 30 years ago the public campaign against impaired driving began. In the 1980s, we saw the creation of the President’s Commission against Drunk Driving and the birth of organizations like MADD and SADD. They helped us realize that statistics mean something and that each death represented a son or daughter or a friend; someone who was loved. I remember being exposed to conversations about the risks of crashes, injuries, and deaths that resulted from driving while intoxicated - these messages affected my behavior and that of my peers. In college, I remember volunteering one night a month as a “DD” or designated driver in an organized program that provided free rides to other students. However I also knew people that didn’t use that program when they should have. Unfortunately those people still exist today – in 2008, 65% of the drivers involved in fatal crashes with an illegal BAC were ages 21-35.
Education can only go so far though, and over the last decade, we have seen very little change with respect to the number of crashes, injuries, and deaths caused by those who drive after drinking. Does impaired driving elicit the same level of shock and ire that it used to? Have we become complacent when week after week we see movie stars and athletes whose careers seem unaffected after being arrested for DUI? Those societal attitudes must change if we want to make last year’s decline the rule, not the exception.
Just last Wednesday in his proclamation declaring December 2009 “National Impaired Driving Prevention Month,” President Obama reminded us to “renew our commitment to preventing the senseless loss of life that too often results from this irresponsible behavior.”
If we are going to make a difference, we may have to dig a little deeper, take a more aggressive stance, embrace a leadership role and ultimately raise the bar for ourselves and others. We need to make the problem of impaired driving, indeed highway safety generally, a political priority if we are to move the nation toward zero alcohol-related deaths. That’s why I am so pleased to be here today with the Stop DUI Caucus. They see this problem as the political priority that it needs to be.
This issue is one of my safety priorities as Chairman of the NTSB. The NTSB gets a lot of attention for investigating aviation accidents like the tragic February crash of a regional jet near Buffalo, New York that resulted in 50 fatalities. Earlier I mentioned the power of talking about people rather than statistics, if we think about the 12,000 people who were killed in drunk driving accidents last year, that would be like having four to five regional jet crashes each week. As a nation, we would not stand for numbers like that, so why do we turn a blind eye to these same fatalities when they occur one and two at a time on the highways?
Many in this room are or have been public servants, and as such, we have the obligation to establish new priorities and be change agents. Although I am serving in my second term at the Safety Board, I started my professional career on the Hill as a staffer, working in the House and the Senate for twelve years. So, I know the daily pressures you face, the innumerable worthy causes clamoring for your attention. This issue is important, these deaths are preventable, we just need the will to drive the numbers down – we can start by being change agents in our own personal lives if we are going to move society toward zero alcohol-related deaths on the highways.
Changing human behavior is hard, but I know it can be done through organizations like the Stop DUI Caucus, the Century Council, and many others. It used to be fashionable to smoke. It no longer is. Seat belts used to be pushed back into the byte of the seat to get them out of the way. Now, as a nation, over 80 percent of drivers are buckled up. Societal attitudes can change.
All Americans have the right to expect to be as safe as possible when travelling on the nation's roads and highways. They shouldn't have to worry about encountering someone who's too impaired to be sharing the road with them.
We must - and can - do more. It's time for us to take greater responsibility for our own actions when it comes to safety on the road. But, more importantly, it's time for us to take the necessary action to prevent impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel. We must make highway safety a top priority, not just another statistic that is ignored.