Transportation safety officials are exploring ways to eliminate drunken driving deaths, which account for about a third of the nation’s more than 30,000 annual traffic fatalities— a share that has remained stubbornly unchanged since the late-1990s.
The National Transportation Safety Board met Tuesday to hear recommendations on ways to meet its goal of zero alcohol-related driving deaths.
Experts said at a two-day information-gathering forum the board held last year that dramatic progress was made in the 1980s through the mid-1990s after the minimum drinking age was raised to 21 and the legally allowable maximum level of drivers’ blood alcohol content was lowered to .08.
But they said progress has largely stagnated over the last decade and a half, requiring a fresh approach.
The NTSB’s 19 recommendations call for stronger laws, swifter enforcement and expanded use of technology.
“Most Americans think that we’ve solved the problem of impaired driving, but in fact, it’s still a national epidemic,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said.
On average, every hour one person is killed and 20 more are injured, according to officials.
Each year in the United States, nearly 10,000 people are killed in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers and more than 173,000 are injured. Since the mid-1990s, even as total highway fatalities have fallen, the proportion of deaths from accidents involving an alcohol-impaired driver has remained constant at around 30 percent.
NTSB investigators cite research showing that although impairment begins with the first drink, by 0.05 BAC, most drivers experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions, which significantly increases the risk of a serious crash. Currently, over 100 countries on six continents have BAC limits set at 0.05 or lower. The NTSB has asked all 50 states to do the same.
Hersman said research shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a “significantly greater risk” of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured.
Among the other findings, investigators said that high-visibility enforcement efforts, such as sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols paired with media campaigns, deter alcohol-impaired driving. To increase the effectiveness of these programs, the NTSB recommended that police use passive alcohol sensors to help better detect alcohol vapor in the ambient environment.
The NTSB, which in December 2012 recommended that states require ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders, said that because only about one in four offenders ordered to have an interlock actually have one installed, states should employ measures to improve interlock compliance.
Further, the board said that an intervention known as administrative license suspension, which allows law enforcement authorities to immediately suspend or revoke a driver’s license at the time of a DWI arrest, would be more effective if states required offenders to have an ignition interlock on their vehicles before licenses could be fully reinstated.
The NTSB said specialized state DWI courts are effective in addressing repeat offenders. DWI courts hold offenders accountable through intensive monitoring, treatment for underlying disorders, alcohol testing and graduated sanctions. The NTSB recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) assist states in maximizing their effectiveness by providing the courts with current best practices.
NTSB said it has has forwarded its safety recommendations to the NHTSA, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
“Alcohol-impaired crashes are not accidents,” said Hersman. “They are crimes. They can – and should – be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.”
The NTSB report, “Reaching Zero: Actions to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving,” is available here
The Associated Press and reporter Joan Lowy contributed to this story.