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16, 2012 - Forum: Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A. P. Hersman
16, 2012 - Forum: Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Christopher Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind, and Member Earl Weener.

We are here today to focus on the number one killer on our roads today: substance-impaired driving.

Let me put a face on this problem. Three young faces.

Twenty-four years ago - yesterday - in Carrollton, Kentucky, a drunk driver drove his pickup truck on the wrong side of I-71, collided with a bus, and killed 27 people - 24 children and three adults. The children were part of a church youth group on their way home to Radcliff, Kentucky, after spending the day at an amusement park.

Mary Catheryn Daniels was 14. She would be 38 today. Were it not for that intoxicated driver, Mary Catheryn might be worrying about her own children going on field trips. Fifteen-year-old Anthony Marks loved football. We will never know what the now-39-year-old would have accomplished with his life. Shannon Fair, a Radcliff Middle School Band member, was 14, her life ahead of her. Would Shannon still be making music today?

Harold Dennis, who survived that accident, has joined us today ... as have a number of safety advocates and people personally affected by substance-impaired driving.

It's been 24 years since that deadly night in Carrollton. Since then, more than 300,000 people have perished at the hands of impaired drivers.

Three hundred thousand: What have we learned in a generation? What have we accomplished?

Yes, through the efforts of government, law enforcement, the judicial system, highway safety advocates, educators, and more, the number of annual lives lost from impaired drivers is down from 18,611 in 1988 to 10,228 last year - and down from a high of 41 percent of highway fatalities to 31 percent.

But, the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities has been stuck between 30 and 32 percent of overall highway fatalities since 1995 - for 16 years. With so many crashes and lost lives, it could be easy to grow complacent and think the task is too daunting - that we can never eliminate substance-impaired driving.

However, I propose that complacency is part of the problem. All of us involved in highway safety - including the NTSB - bear some responsibility for this complacency.

Many believe in educating drivers about their responsibilities behind the wheel, but with more than 10,000 fatalities every year, I think we just might receive a failing grade if after a generation we couldn't show better results for our education efforts.

Yes, this issue has many facets - cultural attitudes about drinking, social norms, political pressures - but we need fresh approaches, renewed commitment, and the will - the personal and the political will - to make a difference.

Every life lost to a substance-impaired driver is a tragedy. What is an even greater tragedy is that these crashes can be prevented. The biggest tragedy ... would be for us to sit this one out and say enough is being done.

We need as much attention today on impaired driving as we saw in the early 1980s when organizations like MADD were founded and the drinking age became 21. Over that decade, real progress was achieved in the United States.

It won't be easy. There are certainly many issues associated with social drinking, addiction, and repeat offenders. When it comes to addressing substance-impaired driving, we recognize the myriad complex social, legal, and medical challenges that exist, but the solution is not complicated, it is quite elementary: Don't drive after you've been drinking or doing drugs.

If people can't stop themselves from endangering others, the safety leaders assembled here have got to identify ways to do it for them.

So, what needs to be done to reach zero? That's the point of this forum: identifying actions to eliminate deaths and life-altering injuries on our roadways.

One area of emphasis is law enforcement. In fact, this is National Police Officers' Memorial Day, which recognizes law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty. More than 200 police officers have been killed by impaired drivers since the 1988 Carrollton, Kentucky, crash. And, as first responders to impaired-driving crashes, police officers truly understand the cost of complacency.

Another area with the potential to be a game changer is technology. Through the years, we have seen tremendous safety advances as new technologies have been integrated into the vehicle fleet. From airbags to stability control, we know technology and design improvements can help protect vehicle occupants.

Here's how Jan Withers, MADD's National President, put it. She said we should turn "cars into the cure."

I commend the work of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the automotive community to turn cars into the cure. I look forward to hearing more about this from several of our panelists.

And, tomorrow, we will hear from Director Gil Kerlikowske of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who will talk about the growing problem of drug-impaired driving. It's time to recognize that when it comes to impairment, the problem goes beyond alcohol. Many drivers are impaired by multiple substances.

In fact, NHTSA found that in 2009 of the fatally injured drivers for whom toxicology test results were known about one-third tested positive for drugs and that the proportion of drivers testing positive for drugs generally increased over the five-year study period.

Drug impairment can, and should, be addressed. Just last week, in the Queen's Speech opening this session of Parliament, the United Kingdom announced new penalties for drug driving offenses and plans to approve and use a roadside drug screening device.

Yes, where there's a will, there is always a way.

In his book, One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, author Barron Lerner quotes physician Ralph Hudson who said:

"This national embarrassment and disgrace has not been just the accumulation of death and injury but, rather, the strange acceptance of death and injury as the way of life."

It is time for all of us in highway safety to renounce this strange acceptance.

We must stand together and say, "This is not acceptable." We must also identify and support new measures to curb the carnage on our roadways.

Do you know the name of the First Assembly of God youth group that was on the bus that night in Kentucky?

The group was called "Life Is for Everyone."

Yes, it is.

Now, I will turn to my colleague, Member Mark Rosekind, who has done an excellent job organizing this forum by consulting with our colleagues and working closely with our staff to bring together the science, the knowledge, the technology, the experience - and, yes, the passion - to address the deadly issue of substance-impaired driving.

Member Rosekind.