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"It's Time for a Fresh Look at Impaired Driving", World Traffic Safety Symposium, New York, NY
Deborah A. P. Hersman
"It's Time for a Fresh Look at Impaired Driving", World Traffic Safety Symposium, New York, NY

Thank you, Mark [Schienberg, President, Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association], for that gracious introduction.

It's great to be here at the New York International Auto Show, with all the excitement surrounding the new production models and concept vehicles.

To the dealers here, for sure, I am impressed with all of your cars, but I am more impressed with your education efforts, and your willingness to take on tough issues, like impaired driving -- the number one killer on our roads today.

Director Kerlikowske talked about the growing problem of drug-impaired driving. It is time for us to recognize that when it comes to impairment, the problem goes beyond alcohol alone. Many drivers are impaired by multiple substances.

Commissioner Fiala mentioned the state's work on identifying underage drinking, training new DREs (drug recognition experts), and the distraction project in Syracuse. Thank you and your team for all of hard work that makes a difference every day.

As a safety professional, I see the tremendous safety advances that have been accomplished through introducing new technologies in cars. From airbags to stability control, your designs protect us from ourselves.

Today, I want to ask some provocative questions such as, what can you do to design cars that protect us from driving while under the influence?

Ten thousand fatalities a year. 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. But, I propose this complacency is part of the problem.

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 the next decade there was no plateau and real progress was achieved.

Have we gotten complacent?

About 30 percent of the fatalities are not high BAC or repeat offenders.

In 2009 on Long Island, Patricia Bregel, 34, had dinner and drinks with friends, she had dropped off her friends and was on her way home at 1:00 a.m. when she killed Timothy Motherway, 35, who was turning into his apartment complex on his way home from work.

Ms. Bregel had no previous record of DWI convictions and her BAC was right at the legal limit of .08. At her age, she would have heard the message about designated drivers.

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

Sure this issue has many facets - cultural attitudes about drinking, social norms, political pressures - but it is hard for anyone to say that a death caused by an impaired driver wasn't preventable.

It is simple: Don't drink and drive.

Although for safety advocates, the old slogan of "one for the road" has morphed into "none for the road," that isn't backed up by our laws.

All 50 states have a .08 BAC, about four drinks in an hour for the average man and three drinks for the average woman. That seems like a lot of drinks for most of us, but not for an alcoholic.

What about individuals with an alcohol addiction who are in need of intervention and treatment? Are we succeeding in changing their behavior?

About 70 percent of fatalities involve high BAC or repeat offenders. How effective have efforts been to separate alcoholics from their cars after they've been drinking?

Let's talk about another Long Island accident, fewer than six months before and 14 miles away. This case involved Persi Esquivel, a repeat offender who had been convicted of drunk driving two years before and evaded a court-ordered ignition interlock by transferring ownership of his vehicle to someone else.

Mr. Esquivel plowed that vehicle into Jason Shein, a 21-year old pre-med student, and his three friends who were on their way home from dinner. Jason was killed by a repeat offender with a BAC of .24. And, although we don't how long he was drinking, it takes the average man more than 10 drinks in an hour to reach that BAC level.

We must again hold up a mirror and honestly ask ourselves if the tools exist to effectively educate prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges about what really changes behavior.

When it comes to addressing those who have a problem with alcohol, we recognize the myriad social, legal and medical challenges that exist, but the solution is as simple as don't drive after you've been drinking. If people can't stop themselves from endangering others, the safety leaders assembled here today have got to identify a way to do it.

We are here in New York on opening day, and I am sure there are a lot of baseball fans in the audience, so just imagine filling Yankee Stadium to capacity and all 50,000 there perishing in a terrible tragedy.

Now imagine the same thing happening to all 80,000 attending a Giants versus Jets game at MetLife Stadium.

That's the number of people killed in crashes involving an alcohol impaired driver in the last decade: 130,000 deaths. Carnage is not too strong a word for what we have allowed on our roadways.

Have we become complacent? Because as long as we accept this behavior, it will continue.

As Churchill said, "Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel... these are the features which constitute an endless repetition of history."

To avoid an endless repetition of history requires new approaches, as Jan Withers, MADD's National President, put it, turn "cars into the cure."

I commend the work of NHTSA and the automotive community to turn cars into the cure. I look forward to hearing more about this from Deputy Administrator Medford.

We saw incredible progress on this issue two decades ago, but we need to retrench if we are going to see similar gains in the next two decades.

This is why the NTSB is holding a forum on substance-impaired driving next month.

It's time for us, as a country, to take a fresh look at this issue. Driving sober means no alcohol, no drugs.

When so much progress has been made in other areas of highway safety, why are impaired driving fatalities stubbornly holding at one-third of highway deaths?

This was the same as last year, and five years ago, and even 10 years ago.

So, what needs to be done to reach zero? That's the point of our forum next month: identifying actions needed to eliminate these deaths and injuries on our roadways.

We owe nothing less to the millions of people, like Timothy Motherway and Jason Shein and his friends, who have been killed or injured at the hands of impaired drivers.