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Speeches and Presentations

Annual IACP Training Conference on Drugs, Alcohol and Impaired Driving

Opening Ceremony Keynote Address Heidi King, NHTSA Deputy Administrator

Monday, August 13, 2018 | Nashville

I suspect that many of us – most of us – can think of a time on a vehicle stop, probably at night, when something doesn’t feel right, something doesn’t look right and we wish backup was there in position.

  • Something is going on in the car you’ve pulled over, but your vision is obscured.  
  • Maybe your radio signal is weak, or someone is hogging the radio, so you can’t call in your location, and as a result,
  • The dispatcher doesn’t know where you are or that you’re on a sketchy vehicle stop.

And you’ve got to do the best you can with what you’ve got, follow protocols, try to stay safe and do the job. It’s uncomfortable to say the least – frankly, it can be scary.

That’s not a situation that anybody wants to be in, but sometimes it happens.

As I visit with DREs across the United States, it feels like many of you have had that same uneasy feeling about drug traffic enforcement.

  • You have the training and maybe the tools for drug recognition traffic enforcement, but it’s not entirely clear that you’ll always have the time and resources to maintain your training.
  • Maybe you are one of the few in your department or your region, so it’s tough to decide whether to spend the time needed to do an evaluation when there are so many other issues on the roads or in our communities.
  • Maybe your tox lab is backed up, so you know it will be months before the lab reports will be available to the DA’s office.
  • Perhaps some of your prosecutors aren’t comfortable with the technical aspects of drug impairment, or maybe the judges don’t trust DRE training and expertise.
  • Perhaps your State laws are not what you wish they were to protect the safety of our driving public.
  • And perhaps worst of all: We now have a public that increasingly believes that driving impaired is acceptable. That it’s safe. Or that it’s legal.

I want you to know: To help you combat drug-impaired driving, backup is coming.  

When I visit with toxicologists, I hear about a stunning increase in workload without an increase in budget. I hear the challenges in getting equipment, developing protocols, and hiring talented and committed staff.

I want you to know: I hear you.

From traffic safety resource prosecutors, I hear of the challenges in educating not only prosecutors, but judges and juries – and legislators – about the complex science and changing laws.

I want you to know: There are folks who want to help, who can help.

More than 10 years ago, the comedian Doug Benson joked about being a multi-tasking pot smoker. In his routine, he boasted, “I was walking down the street. I was putting eye drops in my eyes. I was talking on my cell phone. And I was getting hit by a car.” Now, 10 years later, we are struggling with historic increases not only in highway fatalities but pedestrian fatalities, changes in Sstate laws and public acceptability that are truly stunning. I have not met anyone who believes the U.S. was ready to manage the risks associated with the push for legalization.

And here we are. Men and women in public safety, committed to protecting, to serving, and to making roads safer. Saving lives.

The messages I want to share with you today are these:

  1. I hear you, we hear you, and I believe that help is on the way.
  2. I am listening to hear from you what you need, Congress is listening, the White House is listening, and other Federal agencies are listening to you. Momentum is building. I need to ask your help to direct this momentum in a useful direction.
  3. Solving the problem of drug-impaired driving is not going to be easy, but I know we can do this. Because look at what you have already done, you are committed leaders that have the experience and the knowledge that the rest of the nation now needs more than ever.

About #1:  Help is on the way

Let me tell you about the Drug-Impaired Driving Initiative at NHTSA.  

I arrived at NHTSA about 10 months ago, just as we were releasing the highway fatalities statistics, second year of dramatic increase – the largest 2-year increase in highway fatalities in my life. Everyone wants to know “why” – Is it distraction?  Marijuana legalization?  

And we don’t know. Because, as a Nation, we are pretty good about collecting data for problems that we’ve known about for years and years, but we aren’t very good about collecting data about things we weren’t focusing on years ago.  And yet, as you know, there is increasingly regional data that provides evidence of a growing problem. And frankly, those of you on the road tell me that you see it with your own eyes. 

I have to tell you why this is an important thing in Washington: Washington likes to follow the data. If there are two policy problems, one with data and statistics and cost numbers, and another without, the policy issue with data and cost numbers is going to get the attention.  

And if nobody is collecting the data, there aren’t any statistics to show that this is a problem, then there is some political risk with standing up and saying let’s spend some public money on this, let’s do more testing that might make feel folks feel protective of their privacy.

But even when the data can’t tell the story, the stories can make a difference. 

So we decided – I decided – to make this a priority and to launch an initiative without delay, and we kicked it off in March in Washington with a Call to Action. I believe that it is important to get this initiative moving even though we haven’t yet figured out all that needs to be done – it was clear that somebody needs to get the ball rolling – NOW. 

So here’s how I think of what we can do with this initiative:

  • Some of the work will take some time – for example, national data will require a more robust and consistent tox lab program in all parts of the country
  • But some things can be done now:
    • Educating the public;
    • Raising more support for programs that work, like DRE and TSRP; and
    • Identifying the research needed and starting to address barriers to that research, such as access to product for testing. 

NHTSA is launching a public awareness campaign this week, coordinating with safety stakeholders across the U.S to expand both the reach and frequency of the messages, video and radio, social media, and we hope to plan events to get local press attention – all directed to raise public awareness that drug-impaired driving is dangerous and illegal.  We will continue to emphasize Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, but the campaign this year will also feature If You Feel Different, You Drive Different: Drive High, Get a DUI.

The campaign officially starts on August 15, supported by a $13 million buy on national television, radio, cinema and digital ads, including the newest drug-impaired driving advertisement. The campaign will continue through September.

We have also launched two working groups – one on toxicology and data issues, and another on prosecution and judicial issues – to move us quickly toward action.  

Regional meetings will help us support what’s working and distinguish what’s not working – with a focus on sharing best practices. We started with our first event in Washington last month.  I can’t thank Darrin Grondel and Greg Frederickson enough for organizing. Additional regional sessions to share best practices are scheduled in Baltimore and Jonlee Anderlee is working on a meeting in Illinois. 

We all have too many meetings in our lives – the goal is not meetings – but moving to action.

Already, Congressional appropriators have provided additional funding to support the initiative for DRE training and a public awareness campaign.

This is not all – this is the beginning. We are just getting started.

#2: We are listening

Every time I speak with a member of Congress, they ask, “What do you need?” 

You have the attention of the Department of Transportation, of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and of other Federal agencies.

I look forward to hearing your ideas for what is needed – how to better support programs that work, or where there are gaps that we can help address.  

I look forward to a dialogue with several of you during my time here in Nashville, because YOUR knowledge and experience will help us save lives. We need to hear from you:

  • What is working?
  • What is missing? and
  • What can and should NHTSA do?  

#3: Solving the problem won’t be easy

Like you, I am stunned at the bad decision-making of some drivers. As Moses Garcia, TSRP in Washington State, said last month, “An impaired brain is not in any condition to evaluate its own impairment.”

NHTSA market research confirms what you tell me you hear on the road: THC-impaired drivers often think they drive better.

The opioid crisis is a national emergency that destroys communities, and that requires treatment and recovery resources.

But point #4: We can do this

You are here. The DRE program works.  Some areas of the country are convicting drug-impaired drivers with great success. Federal, State and local governments seem to have gotten the message that the great experiment — opening Pandora’s box — has resulted in unexpected consequences.  

The pieces are in place. We can do this.

Many lives depend on it.

I hope that you will consider me a partner, and a resource – I am learning from you what is needed, and am proud to do what I am able to support your lifesaving work.

I go back to the analogy I started with – a traffic stop. (I can’t help myself, I’ve learned from some rough traffic stops, and I was also a dispatcher) 

We see that there is a problem on our roadways and we need to act to protect the public. We know, and we are trained, that we need to communicate what we are dealing with so that dispatch can send the help we need. We assess the need for additional resources that would ensure the safety of the officer and the public.  And we will act as a team, within the law, to protect public safety together.  

Your team is larger than you know. 

To call out a few folks in particular:

Thank you Carmen (Hayes) for that introduction and for your leadership and all that you do for highway safety in NHTSA Region 4. 

Thanks also to IACP DRE Section Chair Chuck Matson.

NHTSA relies heavily on partnerships, and one of our most valuable partners is the International Association of Chiefs of Police. We are pleased and fortunate to partner with the IACP to manage the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program. 

At IACP, I would like to thank:

  • Domingo Herraiz      
  • Sarah Horn
  • Christine Frank
  • Kyle Clark and Jim Maisano

And a special thanks to Chuck Hayes. Chuck is always there for us at NHTSA, and I know he is always there for you. He is an incredible ambassador for the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program and very much in demand around the country. His commitment to this program and the personal sacrifices he has made over the years truly deserve a round of applause. 

On the trivia side, Chuck is a perfect 24-for-24 when it comes to attendance at this annual conference.

And when it comes to ambassadors for the DEC program, I would be remiss not to personally thank Bill O’Leary from my staff at headquarters. Bill does an exemplary job as NHTSA’s program manager for DEC and we are fortunate to have him in that role.

Most of all, thank you.

Thank you for your service. On behalf of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao and the women and men of NHTSA, thank you for the important, lifesaving work you do – as Drug Recognition Experts, Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutors, Toxicologists. 

Thank you and your families for the sacrifices that you make.

Thank you for your courage.

Thank you for your willingness to put your life on the line to keep us all safe.

Please be safe. We need each and every one of you.

Thank you for the honor of being with you here in Nashville this morning.