Tuesday, February 27, 2018 |
Alongside the Pacific Ocean, there is a scenic beach cove, and behind it a quiet stretch of road curving between the trees – I think they are cypress trees. I often think of a young couple who lost their lives there more than 30 years ago. Driving impaired late at night, returning home from a party as I recall, their car left the road and struck one of the trees. The crew of park rangers and emergency medical responders could not save them. My husband at the time was one of the rescuers and he returned home exhausted and very very sad.
Hours later, I was on duty patrolling that same stretch of road, the bright Summer warming the sand and shining off the water, beachgoers stepped onto the sand unaware carrying beach chairs and picnic supplies. The crash scene had been cleared, debris cleaned up. Looking closely, I could see the small fragments of broken glass and plastic.
I still reflect on the haunting contrast between the terrible aftermath of the crash and the idyllic beach scene restored only hours later. Despite all that we’ve learned as a nation, the loss of life from impaired driving continues.
I worry that, as a nation, we are like the beachgoers – unaware of the loss of life resulting from impaired driving.
Instead, imagine a world in which:
- A college student is ready to leave a party, but is feeling a little high: her friends recognize the signs and proactively call her a cab;
- A parent has taken more than the recommended dose of a pain prescription, and decides not to pick up the kids but to call another parent to drive carpool instead;
- Members of the community know that it is dangerous to drive impaired, and take steps to keep drug-impaired drivers off our roads.
Imagine a future with safer roads, with safer drivers.
At NHTSA, our mission is saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing economic costs resulting from auto crashes.
As most of you are aware, fatalities on our roads have been increasing – 37,461 of our friends, neighbors, and family members died as the result of auto collisions in 2016. The year-over-year increase both in 2016 and 2015 is the largest in more than half a century.
We have to ask ourselves, why?
We know some reasons for the increase: Increases in miles traveled, more pedestrians and bicycles on our roadways. Drunk-driving appears to be on the decline, but it remains a factor in nearly 30 percent of traffic fatalities.
But there is much that we don’t know.
Distraction is likely an issue, but many believe it is under-reported.
Increasingly, we see in the emerging data and hear from law enforcement that drug impairment is a growing problem.
We believe from the existing data that increased recreational drug use and the opioid epidemic are contributing to a new epidemic of drug-impaired driving.
The Urgency of Combatting Drug-Impaired Driving
Of course, the first priority is the safety of our roads. Drug-impaired driving is dangerous. Highway fatalities are unacceptable.
And traffic crashes cause injuries and disabilities too, as well as economic costs.
NHTSA estimated that the economic cost of motor vehicle crashes that occurred in 2010 totaled $242 billion. This is equivalent to approximately $784 for every person living in the United States and 1.6 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. When we factor in the loss of quality of life and other values, the estimates increase even more.
Saving Lives, Preventing Injuries and Reducing Economic Costs
That is why NHTSA is launching an initiative to combat drug-impaired driving, starting with A Call to Action on March 15. At that event but also in the coming months and years, we will bring together experts and stakeholders to raise awareness, to share best practices, and to set a path toward collecting consistent data, testing, and measuring driver impairment levels that support the enforcement of impairment laws. It is important to me that we define a vision of what we are seeking to accomplish together, so that each of us can contribute toward the goal of safer roads.
The challenges are not insignificant. But I am confident that we can do this—together. We must.
Officers tell me that drivers are mixing drugs, and mixing drugs with alcohol. I hear from public safety experts in the field that many people know it is dangerous and illegal to drive drunk, but they think it’s ok to drive after getting high or abusing drugs.
This complexity—the fact some drivers might mix their use of illicit drugs, or mix or mask with alcohol—makes the challenge more daunting but also more urgent.
What do we need to get to a safer future?
The crisis on our roads calls for a combination of policies, research, and action that requires committed and sustained effort from state, local and federal governments, from highway safety partners, schools and communities. We can no longer tolerate our own ignorance of this critical threat to the safety of our roads. We must engage in the difficult but critical discussion and launch a national dialogue to reduce the loss of life caused by driving under the influence of drugs.
Research to Improve Our Understanding
There is much we don’t know. And it’s incredibly frustrating. But by working together, through this conference and through other initiatives, we will fill in the blanks together and improve our understanding of the problem and the solutions we might employ.
Public Awareness to Drive Individual Action
When we talk about drug-impaired driving, it is tempting to turn immediately to discussion of enforcement, traffic stops, lab tests and prosecution strategies.
But in an ideal world, individuals would be equipped with the information and tools necessary to make good decisions.
Public school drivers’ education programs are on the decline, and we have to reach new drivers in other ways. It is more urgent than ever that we develop public education tools and campaigns to educate not only drivers but the individuals around them, so they will make better decisions.
Policies for Improved Enforcement
But we also need enforceability.
We need more officers trained in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and Drug Recognition Experts (DRE).
We need more equipment and robust, repeatable toxicological protocols for testing lab samples.
We need more prosecutors trained and confident in the prosecution of drug-impaired driving cases.
We can do this.
We have a few things in our favor:
- We can build upon public awareness and programs developed for alcohol-impaired driving.
- We can build upon the tools and relationships we have developed over the decades of combatting alcohol-impaired driving.
I’m excited to learn that some of our communication experts in the field have already begun to make strides in communicating the risks of drug-impaired driving to their communities. I’m heartened to learn that some communities have improved their tools for identifying, assessing and prosecuting drug-impaired driving.
There is a long road ahead, but there are lessons we can share to improve the safety of our roads this year.
By working together, we can begin to save lives today and prevent thousands of impaired driving auto crashes. In the years to come, I want the young people returning home from a celebration to return home safely, and in good health.
I know that we can do this.