Speeches and Presentations

Remarks: National Association of Drug Court Professionals Annual Training Conference

Dr. Mark R. Rosekind , NHTSA Administrator

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 | Washington, D.C.

Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D.
Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
As Prepared for Delivery

Judge Barrasse, thank you for that introduction, and thank you for your leadership on drug and alcohol issues in Pennsylvania and nationally.

It’s an honor to be here with Director Botticelli, Director O’Donnell, Pamela Hyde, and with so many of you who are dedicated to reducing the devastating impact of drugs and alcohol on our society. Drug and DWI courts are an essential tool in reducing that devastation.

At NHTSA, you can sum up our interest with one number: 10,076. That is the number of lives lost in alcohol-impaired traffic crashes in 2013. That represents more than one-third of the 32,719 total traffic fatalities in 2013. Let me repeat that: more than one third of the time an American dies on our roadways, alcohol is involved.

That’s an enormous number. But at NHTSA, though we are data-driven, we know that behind that number are real people – mothers and fathers, friends and co-workers, loved ones lost, in an instant, to the effects of alcohol on drivers.

Devastating as those statistics are, things used to be far worse. In 2003, more than 17,000 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes. That’s a 41 percent reduction in just a decade. It’s amazing progress, and it represents many successes.

NHTSA’s model for reducing risky behavior on the roads is built on three pillars: strong laws, tough enforcement, and vigorous public education efforts. Federal law includes strong incentives for states to adopt stringent laws to combat drunk driving. Our grant programs support high-visibility enforcement campaigns – campaigns aimed primarily not at boosting arrest totals, but at sending a signal to everyone on the road that, if you drink and drive, the flashing lights of a police cruiser are likely to follow. And our “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” public awareness campaign reinforces the message that drunk driving has consequences.

These efforts, combined with other initiatives by safety advocates, law enforcement groups, governments at all levels, health professionals and others have transformed public attitudes and public behavior when it comes to alcohol. Every year, it is a little bit less socially acceptable to have a few beers or a few glasses of wine and then get behind the wheel. NHTSA’s Roadside Survey of drug and alcohol use, which periodically measures impairment among a nationally representative sample of drivers, found that from the first survey in 1973 to the most recent in 2014, driving above the legal limit of .08 has fallen by 80 percent. That’s an astonishing change in public behavior

And yet, no amount of pride over this transformation can erase that number: 10,076. That figure, and the lives it represents, screams to us that we have no time to bask in our successes. There are too many lives still at risk, too much yet to do. One life lost to impaired driving is one too many. And until 10,076 is reduced to zero, we cannot, will not, be satisfied. Despite all of our success at convincing Americans not to drink and drive, drunk driving deaths remain about 31 percent of all highway fatalities in this country, a percentage that has remained essentially unchanged since the late 1990s. These numbers – and the human toll they represent – compel us to do better.

So, what challenges do we face, and how can the work you are gathered here to do help?

While drunk driving is decreasing, the cost in lives remains a stubbornly high share of the total death toll on our roads. Clearly, we are dealing with trends that are hard to change through traditional measures.

In addition, we face a growing and complex challenge in the form of drugged driving. The relationship between drunk driving and crash risk is clear and firmly established over decades of research and testing. We understand much less about the much more complicated mechanisms of impairment through drug use. What’s particularly worrisome here is that while we understand this issue less, it is rapidly growing. The NHTSA Roadside Survey found that the number of drivers with marijuana in their system increased by nearly 50 percent from 2007 to 2014.

Use of prescription drugs and illegal narcotics on the road is also an emerging challenge. We’re going to need to learn much more, and quickly, about what this means for highway safety and what tools are most effective at addressing risks.

And one of the essential tools in this fight will be DWI and drug courts. Legal and judicial resources dedicated to understanding and addressing the unique challenge of impaired driving have already made a major difference in the fight, and the importance of drug and DWI courts will only grow

Research has shown that these courts are effective at reducing chronic drunk driving. Right now we’re conducting a survey of DWI courts to collect data we can use to evaluate their effectiveness. If you lead a DWI court and would like to complete a survey, please let NCDC or NHTSA staff know. NHTSA-supported studies in Minnesota, Michigan and Georgia have all shown the effectiveness of specialty courts in reducing repeat offenses.

Our grant programs have helped states and local governments establish DWI courts. These interventions make an enormous difference in the lives of these offenders. But they also keep all of us safe, and they reduce the economic and social cost of drunk-driving crashes. And that is why NHTSA is such a strong supporter of what you are gathered here to do.

In 2007, NHTSA began providing grant funding to NADCP’s National Center for DWI Courts, helping establish the NCDC, which seeks to raise awareness of the value of DWI courts, provide training and technical assistance, and conduct research into the impact of DWI courts and their best practices. We are now in the third year of a second five-year arrangement with NCDC, and NHTSA’s total support for the effort will total approximately $5 million.

We’re proud of that support, but just as proud of the less formal day-to-day work we do with DWI and drug court professionals. In Washington and in our regional offices, NHTSA officials work hand-in-hand with legal professionals around the country. Our regional administrators and their staffs work closely with officials at the state and local level to increase the number of DWI courts so that together, we can change lives and make our roadways safer.

When I came to NHTSA, one of the priorities I identified for my two years at the agency was enhancing the effectiveness of our core safety programs – those that address seat belt use, distracted driving and other behavioral issues, including impaired driving, We’re going to look for new, innovative solutions to address this stubborn problem.

Another priority I identified was technology innovation. And while many people associate these innovations with crash-avoiding radar and self-driving cars, technology also has a role in reducing impaired driving. Ignition interlocks are one effective tool, one that is reliable, cost-effective and tamper proof and that we strongly encourage as an important measure to reduce repeat offenses. But another, even more promising innovation may be on the horizon. NHTSA and a coalition of automotive companies are working on DADSS – the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety – an R&D project in which we are pursuing two technologies that could instantly detect alcohol content and prevent a drunk driver from getting on the road. And the research is really getting exciting with the recent installation of the technologies into test vehicles. When successful, this project will give vehicle owners an important new safety tool.

Optimistic as I am about our behavioral safety efforts and exciting new technologies, I come back to that number: 10,076. There is no magic bullet solution that will reduce or eliminate that number – the task for us is to roll up our sleeves and do the hard, demanding, necessary day-to-day work of preventing these tragedies. But they are just that: preventable. NADCP and all of you are helping to prevent them. Thank you for your passion. Thank you for your commitment. Thank you for your skill. Thank you for working to save lives.