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Safety Report - Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Safety Report - Reaching  Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving - 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.

Today, we meet to consider the Safety Report - Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving. This is critical; impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers on our roadways.

Twenty-five years ago — today — our nation saw the deadliest alcohol-impaired driving crash in U.S. history. A drunk driver drove his pickup the wrong-way on Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Kentucky, hit a school bus and killed 24 children and three adults and injured 34 more people. Today our thoughts are with those families in Kentucky. That same year, impaired drivers would kill thousands more.

Let's look at how well we are doing, as a nation, to address the national epidemic of alcohol-impaired driving. As I'll explain, we've made progress since that deadly night in Kentucky, but not nearly enough.

In 1982, the first year of NHTSA's FARS tracking system, 21,113 people died in U.S. crashes involving alcohol-impaired driving, representing nearly one-half of all highway deaths. Today, the percentage of deaths due to alcohol-impaired driving is about one-third of all highway fatalities.

Moving the percentage from one-half to one-third of highway fatalities has taken great effort by thousands of dedicated people in many organizations. Significant progress started in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s. Much credit goes to groups like Remove Intoxicated Drivers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who put a face on the problem. Tragically, it would be the face of a loved one, like 13-year-old Cari Lightner, killed in 1980 by a drunk driver. Or, the face of five-month-old Laura Lamb, who in 1979 became the nation's youngest quadriplegic after her mother's vehicle was struck by a drunk driver.

Progress attacking this problem has taken leadership from law enforcement and government at all levels, from a host of advocacy groups, as well as from industry and motivated citizens. And, it's been a multi-pronged approach encompassing laws and enforcement, penalties and sanctions, technology, as well as education and outreach.

These efforts have led to a change in social norms and cultural acceptance. When Cari Lightner was killed, drunk drivers frequently got away with murder. And, they still do today. However, as a society, we are more aware of the risks of drinking and driving. Today, the term "designated driver" is in our vernacular.

Yet, today, on average, every hour, one person is killed in a crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver. Every hour, 20 more people are injured. Of those 20, three will live with debilitating injuries.

It's frustrating that with the education and advocacy, with laws and enforcement and with the many processes set up to deal with the problem of drinking and driving — that we are still seeing so many lives lost.

Since 1995, the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities has been stuck at about one-third of annual highway deaths. In 2011, nearly 10,000 people died. Another 173,000 were injured and of those, 27,000 were debilitating life-altering injuries.

That's the human cost. It is much too high.

What about the economic costs? One recent study puts the costs at nearly $130 billion a year. One hundred and thirty billion dollars: That's more than the state budgets of Maryland, Massachusetts and Michigan, combined.

Indeed, the costs are too high.

Every year, with those 10,000 deaths, there are at least 10,000 reasons to tackle this issue. We know there's more, much more, that can be done. That's why the NTSB sharpened its focus on impaired driving over the past year.

Last May, the NTSB held a two-day forum on impaired driving with participants from across the research, medical, law enforcement, and highway safety communities to address the status and effectiveness of existing and potential interventions.

We followed the forum by issuing safety recommendations calling for better testing protocols and data collection. Then, in December, we completed a special investigation report on wrong-way driving. We found that alcohol-impaired driving is the leading cause of wrong-way crashes. We called for using alcohol-ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders and for the expeditious development of in-vehicle alcohol-detection systems.

That brings us to today's meeting and the Safety Report on Reaching Zero, which a team of NTSB highway safety, human factors, data and technology experts has been working on over the past year.

If the numbers have been resistant to change over a generation, we must ask ourselves, "What more can be done?"

To make a bold difference requires bold action.

It can be done.

It's been done before. Our nation took initial and bold steps in the 1980s and 1990s, when impaired driving fatalities were brought down and thousands of lives were saved each year.

It's being done elsewhere. As we'll hear about this morning, other nations are taking firm steps and saving lives.

Look at the progress in the European Union, which, in 2000, set a goal to cut alcohol-related roadway fatalities in half by 2010. They achieved the goal, with a 53 percent decrease in road deaths attributed to drinking and driving. And, the EU renewed the challenge, to cut the number of fatalities in half again — by 2020.

The United States prides itself on being a leader in transportation safety, but, when it comes to alcohol-impaired driving, our nation is woefully behind many of our international counterparts.

Tomorrow is Peace Officers Memorial Day, which recognizes the heroes who give their lives to provide us with safer communities to live in. Peace officers are the ones on the front lines. They are the ones who respond and see the terrible toll of these crashes. They are the ones who knock on doors and provide family members with the worst news they will ever hear. That's why it is especially tragic when the knock is on their own door -- like what happened to one Massachusetts State Police officer.

In June three years ago, Sgt. Douglas Weddleton was working on an I-95 construction detail in Mansfield, Mass., when he stopped a car attempting to drive onto a closed exit ramp. That driver was intoxicated. As Sgt. Weddleton was talking to him, a pickup truck slammed into the stopped car pushing it and Sgt. Weddleton across three lanes of the highway.

Sgt. Weddleton was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The pickup driver's blood alcohol concentration: 0.07, under the 0.08 legal limit.

Our goal is to get to zero deaths, because each alcohol-impaired crash is preventable. No one should ever have to experience that knock on the door and receive the notification that too many families receive.

Alcohol-impaired crashes are not accidents. They are crimes. They can — and should -- be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.

Dr. Mayer, will you please introduce the staff.