Mark R. Rosekind
Last year, 10,839 people were killed in traffic crashes that involved an alcohol-impaired driver. That is over four times as many deaths as all fatalities in aviation, rail, marine, pipeline, and hazmat accidents combined. 10,839 fatalities is a staggering number and an unacceptable loss.
The deadliest drunk driving related crash in our Nation's history occurred in 1988 on an interstate highway near Carrollton, Kentucky. A driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.28 percent (over three times the current legal limit) drove his pickup truck in the wrong direction on the interstate and hit a school bus head on. The school bus, with 67 passengers onboard, burst into flames. Twenty-seven people lost their lives and 34 others were seriously injured in the crash.
Each day more people are killed in drunk-driving crashes than the 27 people who were lost in the most deadly alcohol impaired accident of all time. These daily crashes may involve a single fatality and they occur across the country and, as a result, do not receive national media coverage or the attention that each one of these tragedies deserves.
Since 2000, the NTSB has focused its efforts on hard core drinking drivers. These are individuals with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent or greater; or repeat offenders with a drunk-driving arrest or conviction in the past 10 years. Hard core drinking drivers are involved in more than 70% of the alcohol-impaired fatalities (in 2009, this represented 7,607 deaths) and 22% of the total highway deaths. Between 1982 and 2009, more than 251,000 people have died in crashes that involved a hard core drinking driver.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that a person makes 88 impaired driving trips before being arrested once. Therefore, a hard core drinking driver who is a repeat offender has probably made at least 176 impaired driving trips before being caught.
What can be done to address these unacceptable daily tragedies that occur on our Nation's roadways? Since 2000, the NTSB has one recommendation to all states and the District of Columbia: establish a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by hard core drinking drivers. The NTSB identified 11 elements of a model comprehensive program. This issue has been on the NTSB's States Most Wanted List since 2003.
The good news is that data show these program elements can be effective and can save lives. Six states - California, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Utah and Virginia - have implemented sufficiently rigorous programs that meet the Board's recommendation. These states are shown on this map in green and they should be recognized for their efforts. The very bad news is that over the past 10 years, 44 states and the District of Columbia have implemented insufficient programs. While there is no magic bullet to address this problem, the recommended tactics can make a difference.
For example, sobriety checkpoints have been shown to deter all forms of drunk driving and greatly reduce impaired driving fatalities. Some studies have shown that these checkpoints can reduce fatalities by as much as 20 percent. Yet 12 states still do not authorize their use.
Since the Board's recommendation in 2000 that focused on hard core drinking and driving, about 81,000 people have died in crashes that involved these drivers. The number of deaths associated with drunk driving is far too high and unacceptable. We can and MUST do better. It is time for all states and the District of Columbia to step up their efforts and implement programs to address this national tragedy on our roads.