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Deputy Administrator: James C. Owens

Op-Ed: Let’s Not Forget to Drive Safely

May 17, 2020

As submitted to Sun-Sentinel,, The Roanoke Times, Record Eagle

Our Nation’s highways are emptier than ever. For those who must travel during this unique time, an open road means quicker commutes, and that is a good thing.  But it can also be tempting to drive too fast.  

Unfortunately, less traffic on our roads is presenting some challenges. Speeding appears to be on the rise. That’s a problem because speeding can increase crash severity, resulting in more major injuries and deaths.  We’re here to remind you that if you must take a drive, please do so safely.  Dangerous driving behaviors not only put you at risk of a crash, but it can also put the brave first responders who arrive at the scene at unnecessary risk.  And during these unique times, nobody wants to divert valuable time and resources from our healthcare providers.

Please wear your seat belt.  Failing to wear a seat belt is a leading cause of severe traffic injuries and fatalities.  While only about 10 percent of drivers don’t wear seat belts, unbelted drivers account for about 50 percent of vehicle occupant deaths. Other life-threatening practices include driving distracted and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  

Even if you’re only going a few blocks to the store, these four simple practices—obeying the speed limit, wearing a seatbelt, staying focused on driving, and driving sober—could very well save your life and reduce the stress on our hospitals and first responders.

With the warming weather, we’re seeing more people enjoying the outdoors, biking, walking, and running for exercise.  If you can safely go outside, please remember to exercise caution around roads and streets.  For cyclists and pedestrians, when you’re getting outdoor exercise, please make sure to follow the rules of the road.  Always bike with traffic.  And if you walk or run along a road, go against traffic so you are more visible to drivers.  

And of course, drivers need to remember to be on the lookout for pedestrians and bicyclists.  During these unique times, it’s easy to assume the roads are empty—but that’s far from the case.  Watch out for pedestrians and remember to yield to them in crosswalks. Be alert.  Sharing the road protects everyone.  It’s also important to keep children in mind. Since more children are now biking and playing outside drivers should pay extra attention and be prepared to react quickly. 

Driving safely always makes sense, but never more so than in these unique times. Better driving protects our first responders, including law enforcement and emergency medical services personnel.  Some communities are stretched thin because thousands of officers, firefighters, and EMS staff have been or are quarantined.  If you’re driving dangerously, if you’re failing to yield to pedestrians or to watch out for bicyclists, you’re not only endangering yourself and other road users, but you’re also putting our dedicated and brave first responders at risk.  

Even when crashes are not directly life threatening, being sent to an emergency department carries unnecessary risks these days.  We can all do our part by driving safely so first responders and medical professionals can better focus on helping our communities during these unprecedented times. 

As traffic increases and congestion returns, let’s remember to practice patience, particularly in areas where public transit options may be more limited than usual.  Even though bars and restaurants may begin to reopen, let’s remember to never drive under the influence – or allow our friends to get behind the wheel if they’ve had too much to drink.  Changes in routines, including rushing to work, could lead to more tragedies from pediatric vehicular heatstroke if children are inadvertently left behind in vehicles.  Each of us will have to be diligent when we all start going back to work and share the road again.  We all have a role to play in promoting our Nation’s traffic safety, just as we are doing in promoting our Nation’s public health. 

Finally, we at NHTSA want to thank all our brave law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, 911 telecommunicators, and health professionals for everything you are doing for our Nation.  Our Office of Emergency Medical Services has been supporting you since Day One, and we know the sacrifices you have made.  Let’s all do our part to drive safe and keep our hospitals and first responders focused on saving lives.

James C. Owens