Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
June 27, 2014
A 2012 report found that deaths resulting from impaired driving, commonly referred to as drunk driving, fell below 10,000 for the first time since researchers began tracking such numbers. Advocates for tougher impaired driving laws were thrilled. When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released new data in fall 2013, those same people were deflated.
The statistics reflected an increase. For the first time in six years, impaired driving deaths rose. The increase was substantial, almost 5 percent. There were 10,322 impaired driving fatalities in 2012 — compared to 9,865 in 2011.
Has a 20-year downward trend been reversed?
If it has, it is not the result of young people getting behind the wheel while impaired. Fewer teens are drinking and driving, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC found that drunken driving among teens has decreased by 54 percent over the last 20 years.
Driving while impaired accounts for about one-third of all traffic fatalities. According to the NHTSA, overall traffic fatalities increased to 33,561, which is a 3.3 percent increase.
For years researchers have believed that deaths on America’s highways are preventable, and they have adopted measures to prove it. They have identified policies that help keep impaired drivers off the road. Between 1991 — when there were 15,827 impaired-driving deaths — and 2012 — when there were 10,322 — the rate of impaired driving fatalities per 100,000 people decreased 48 percent nationally, according to the NHTSA.
Great strides have been made in combating impaired driving.
Since 1992, when the NHTSA first recommended to Congress that states reduce the legal impairment threshold from .10 blood alcohol content to .08, all 50 states and the District of Columbia adopted the lower impairment standard.
Other initiatives, like ignition interlock, have saved lives. Ignition Interlock is an in-car Breathalyzer, a device that can be installed to prevent people who have consumed alcohol from driving. They are installed after a driver has been convicted of driving while impaired. Data show that legally impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes were eight times more likely to have a prior DWI conviction than drivers who had not been drinking, reported the CDC.
Research shows that ignition interlocks can reduce the rate of re-arrest among drivers convicted of driving while impaired by two-thirds.
Another effective tool is the sobriety checkpoint. Law enforcement officers stop all drivers on a designated road to assess their level of alcohol impairment. Checkpoints deter impaired driving by increasing the drivers’ perceived risk of arrest if they choose to get behind the wheel impaired.
Research has shown that checkpoints reduce impaired driving crashes and deaths by as much as 20 percent, according to the CDC.
What is on the horizon in the battle against impaired driving?
Researchers are currently trying to develop a breath test to detect marijuana use for purposes of investigating impaired driving. Technology exists to use roadside testing for alcohol. Preliminary breath tests, or PBTs, are frequently employed by law enforcement agencies.
Researchers in Poland have developed a new tool that employs lasers to detect alcohol in moving vehicles from the side of the road. The technology was developed by the Military University of Technology in 2013.
When alcohol is detected in a vehicle, the device sends a message to police along with a photo of the suspected vehicle and the license plate number. This gives law enforcement the ability to pull over a vehicle and determine whether a driver is intoxicated.
Even without advanced technologies, the war wages on. According to FBI statistics, every year police officers across the country arrest about 1.4 million motorists for driving while impaired.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com, and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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