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Speeches and Presentations

Road to Zero

Heidi King, Deputy Administrator, NHTSA

Tuesday, March 20, 2018 |

Remarks Prepared by Heidi King
Deputy Administrator, NHTSA
Road to Zero
Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Thirty years ago, I had the honor to serve for a short while in law enforcement. I arrested drunk drivers. I was trained to identify probable cause for a vehicle stop and to assess the signs of alcohol impairment in drivers. I knew how to conduct field sobriety tests, how to affect a safe arrest, how to collect evidence and maintain chain of custody, and how to write an accurate and complete report. I was keeping dangerous drivers off our roads.

I thought we were winning, that we knew how to make roads safer; we were removing drunk drivers from our roads, and our cars had seat belts.

Ten years later, auto manufacturers equipped new cars with air bags. Fatalities continued to decrease on our roads.

Six months ago, arriving at NHTSA, one of the first things I learned was that the long decline in road fatalities had reversed. NHTSA was preparing to release 2016 FARS data showing a second year of increase in fatalities; the combined 2-year increase is the largest in my lifetime. As this group knows all too well, 37,461 friends, neighbors and colleagues died on our roads in auto crashes in 2016.
That’s unacceptable. 

Not only did we experience an increase in fatalities, but when we try to explain the increase, we can only tell part of the story. 

There’s no denying that the data tell us an important part of the story: 

  • We know that alcohol-impairment continues to be a huge contributor to the risk on our roadways: 10,497 of those deaths in 2016 were due to alcohol-related crashes. 
  • And we know that although seat belts save lives, we continue to see unbelted people die in crashes: 10,428 of those occupants killed were unbelted. Forty-eight percent of passenger vehicle occupants who were killed in traffic crashes in 2016 were unrestrained.

But what about the new issues we confront as a Nation? 

  • Many believe that distracted driving continues to be underreported. 
  • We have witnessed an increase in pedestrian fatalities. Here in Washington, DC, most of the people killed in traffic crashes were pedestrians. 
  • An increasing number of bicyclists are taking to the roads as well, and we have witnessed an increase in crashes resulting in bicyclist fatalities.

Social trends are presenting even more dire threats to our roadways. There is growing evidence that drug impairment represents a growing risk to road users. We believe from the existing data that increased recreational drug use and the opioid epidemic are contributing to increases in drug-impaired driving. 

As several States have legalized marijuana, THC products are now legally available to consumers—to drivers—in multiple forms. 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 okay to drive after getting high or abusing drugs. Not only are many drivers unaware that driving high is illegal, but many seem to be unaware that it is dangerous: Some drivers claim that they are better drivers when they are high.

This complexity—the gap in public awareness of the risks, and the fact that some drivers might mix their use of illicit drugs, or mix or mask their drug use with alcohol—makes the challenge more daunting but also more urgent.

Most communities don’t have the labs, the equipment, the toxicologists, or the test protocols to accurately assess the problem. The data that we have leads me to believe that drug-impaired driving is a rapidly increasing and serious threat to public safety:

  • In Orange County, California, a pilot program tests all impaired drivers for a panel of 46 drugs. Several months of data revealed that 74 percent of all impaired drivers tested positive for between one and three drugs.

At NHTSA, our mission is saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing economic costs resulting from motor vehicle crashes. 

That is why NHTSA has launched an initiative to combat drug-impaired driving, starting with a Call to Action last week. At that event, we brought together for the first time at the Department of Transportation a group of experts, including law enforcement officers, medical officials, 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 impaired-driving laws. Hundreds of ideas were offered and organized into action categories to be used as the basis for an action plan. We established the commitment to 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.  

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; and 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 of the emerging challenges in a national dialogue to reduce the loss of life caused by driving under the influence of drugs. 

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. Several States have already launched programs to educate the public about drug-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 communications 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.

The Road to Zero is a long road, and we are finding that it is a road with twists, turns, and bumps. More twists, turns, bumps than we expected, perhaps. But, with the commitment of the people in this room, and the innovations and lessons learned from some outside this room, we can tackle the problem together and improve the safety of our roads this year, next year, and into the future until we reach Zero traffic deaths.

I know that we can do this. Because we have to.