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Presentation to Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD)
Christopher A. Hart
Washington, DC

​Thank you for that kind introduction.  It is my privilege to represent the National Transportation Safety Board - alongside SADD president Dawn Teixeira, NHTSA Administrator and former NTSB Member Mark Rosekind, and GHSA Chair Jana Simpler - as we mark Impaired Driving Prevention Month, and host SADD’s teen traffic safety symposium, Redefining Impaired Driving.

The NTSB made the first of its many recommendations about impaired driving in 1968. That recommendation addressed alcohol impairment.

 For its part, SADD was founded 35 years ago at a time when about 50,000 people died on our highways annually, and about one-half those deaths involved alcohol.

Through the efforts of SADD and other safety advocates, the general public has become more aware of the hazards of drunk driving, laws were changed, and enforcement got tighter.

By the late 1990s, about one in three highway deaths involved alcohol. But that proportion has been stubbornly constant ever since. In 2013, 31% of all highway deaths involved alcohol impairment.

Now, after all these years, I’m glad that we’re talking about impaired driving, rather than drunk driving, for two reasons.

First, alcohol is only one of thousands of impairing drugs that are causing accidents. And unfortunately there is reason to believe that the problem of drugged driving is on the rise.

Just recently the NTSB issued a report on an accident in which a commercial truck struck a bus, killing four members of a junior college softball team near Davis, Oklahoma. The truck-driver had been using a synthetic drug for which he had not been tested, and which was not illicit. In fact, he had purchased the drug legally at a truck stop.

The public needs to understand that drugged driving kills – whether the impairing drug is licit or illicit, and whether it is a recreational, over-the-counter, or prescription drug.

Law enforcement is getting drugged drivers off the road based on driving behavior, and using drug recognition experts to determine impairment by drugs other than or in addition to alcohol.  Their job is much more difficult with drugs because, unlike for drinking and driving, there is no “bright line” of illegality for drugged driving. Meanwhile, as I mentioned, drinking and driving continues to kill thousands every year. Notice that I say “drinking and driving” and not “drunk driving.”

This is the second reason why it’s important to talk about “Impaired Driving” rather than “Drunk Driving”: It’s not only the unmistakably drunk driver that’s the problem. Alcohol impairment starts with the first drink.

The NTSB continues to recommend a legal limit of .05 or lower BAC in all states – not the .08 we’ve gotten used to.  Many countries in Europe have placed the legal limit at .05, and the benefits of the lower limit are well documented.

Critics say not to worry about drivers with a BAC at the so-called lower end of the scale, since they don’t account for most crashes – although they do account for some.

But every drink, even your first one, affects whether you’ll “know when to say when.” In addition, we know from experience that self-diagnosis of impairment is not reliable.  So if you’re going to be driving, the question isn’t when to say when. The question is whether to drink at all, and the answer is no.

The NTSB also recommends ignition interlocks for all convicted offenders. An ignition interlock prevents a car from starting if the driver has been drinking.

It is estimated that the average “first offender” has driven under the influence 80 times. Ignition interlocks provide a powerful incentive to adopt new habits, and have been shown to reduce re-arrest rates by 67%.

This holiday season, law enforcement will be manning the checkpoints – not because they’re “out to get us,” but because they’re out to save lives. And they are putting their own lives on the line to do it.

Less than two weeks ago, not far from here, a driver who admitted that he had been drinking struck and killed a 24-year-old Montgomery County Police officer. The officer, who was working on a special DUI assignment, had pulled over another motorist.

According to police, the driver who struck him had also been smoking marijuana. 

On behalf of the entire NTSB, I would like to extend our sincerest condolences to the officer’s loved ones and colleagues. They’ve lost one of their own.

Each impaired-driving death is one too many, and entirely preventable. The only acceptable number of impaired-driving deaths is zero.

The students in today’s SADD have taken the baton and started their leg of the safety journey. Their work is vitally important, because what students hear from their peers carries much greater weight than what they hear from adults.

As for adults: we know that young people learn from what we do as well as what we say. Our actions have to reinforce our words in order for our children to learn from our advice.

December marks many other year-end observances, in addition to Impaired Driving Prevention Month, and many of us shower our children with holiday gifts in this season.

By driving un-impaired this month - and every month – we can give the gift of life – ours as well as the lives of others in our car and others on the road.

We can help ensure that we are there to celebrate together next year – and perhaps ensure that other families are able to celebrate next year’s holiday season as well.

Thank you.