Each year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) releases a list of their top ten advocacy and legislative priorities for increasing transportation safety in the United States. They call it their “Most Wanted” list, and for 2014, one of the items is the elimination of substance-impaired driving.
According to the NTSB, 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths occur in motor vehicle accidents. Many of these involve alcohol or drug impairment and are therefore considered completely avoidable. In the past decade, more than 119,000 people have been killed in auto accidents involving alcohol impairment. According to a AAA study, about one in seven drivers admits to having driven when suspecting him- or herself to be over or close to the legal BAC limit.
The problem extends beyond alcohol. Over-the-counter, prescription and illegal drugs can also cause impairment. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that more than 10 million people admitted to driving under the influence of illegal drugs within the previous year.
Efforts to prevent impaired driving can be divided into general deterrents and specific deterrents. General deterrents are aimed at the general public, and they include legal limits on blood alcohol content (BAC) and high-visibility enforcement campaigns. Specific deterrents are used to encourage those who have been caught driving while impaired to refrain from doing so again. These include jail terms, fines and license revocation.
The NTSB points out that conventional deterrents are often ineffective in cases where the individual has a substance abuse problem. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) courts aim to change offender behavior by focusing on accountability and long-term treatment with close, comprehensive supervision.
The agency has also highlighted technological advances for curbing impaired driving. Passive alcohol sensors are small electronic devices built into police flashlights or clipboards that detect alcohol in the ambient air. They do not require a suspect’s cooperation, as they can work from outside a vehicle’s open window. Ignition interlock devices can be installed in offenders’ cars, requiring them to breathe into the device for a BAC reading before the car can be started.
The NTSB advocates a reduction of the BAC at which a driver is presumed impaired from the current 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. It also recommends incorporating the use of passive alcohol sensors into enforcement efforts, expanding the use of ignition interlocks and developing best practices for DWI courts.