Good afternoon. Thank you, Elizabeth, and thanks to AAA Western and Central New York for inviting me to speak today.
My name is Jennifer Homendy, and I’m the newest member of the National Transportation Safety Board, having taken the oath of office last August.
I may be new to the Board, but I’m not new to safety. I’ve spent my entire career focused on what I can do to save lives and prevent injuries.
To me, this is far more than a job; it’s personal, because I believe that the loss of just one life is unacceptable and that the costs of making the wrong decision are far too great. I’m not talking about the economic costs. I’m talking about the lives that are lost and the lifelong impact that senseless tragedies have on victims and their families.
The NTSB sees that impact at accident scenes and the days, months, and years that follow which is why I believe that if I can save that one life, I’ve done my job.
By way of background, the NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating major transportation disasters. We determine the probable cause of crashes, and issue safety recommendations to federal, state, and local agencies and organizations to prevent future tragedies and injuries and save lives.
Since 1967, the NTSB has issued nearly 15,000 safety recommendations, about 2,500 of which are aimed at improving highway safety. Overall, more than 80% of those recommendations have been adopted. It’s the remaining 20% that I’m focused on.
To organize our advocacy efforts, the NTSB publishes our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. The Most Wanted List serves as our primary advocacy tool to help save lives and prevent injuries. It consists of the issues that we believe are the highest risk when it comes to safety. As you might have already guessed, “End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation” is on our Most Wanted List for 2019 and 2020.
When I was preparing for this speech, I thought about someone I haven’t thought of in a long time. His name was Ryan. We went to elementary school and junior high together. We weren’t close friends, but our schools were small enough that we sometimes ran in the same circles and, on occasion, I’d hang out with him and his friends at the pool over the summer. He was popular, funny, and when I think of him, I always picture him with a big smile on his face. What I didn’t know when we left junior high was that I’d never see him again. Behind that smile was someone who suffered from manic depression and, at the age of just 14, he was a drug addict. Two years later, his parents got a phone call that no parent ever wants to receive. His father wrote about it in an article in 1990. That article has always stuck with me. He said:
“The week after school started, we went to an open house for parents. When we got home, our daughter told us the police had called and said there had been a minor accident involving Ryan’s car. They said no one was hurt and whoever was driving had left the scene…we spent the next hour and a half calling the county and state police and the hospital. Finally, around 10 pm, the state police called us and asked us to come to the hospital. Two state troopers were there. They ushered us into a tiny storeroom. The younger cop could barely get the words out. A young boy had run from the car that was involved in the crash…he was on the interstate. The terror started to rise in me, because I knew what he was going to say next: “Ryan has been hit by a car and killed.” My mind was saying, no, it can’t be true. If he was injured or caught on drugs, we could start all over again. This was forever.”
He went on to say that in time they learned Ryan had purchased LSD earlier that day from a friend. He had been driving his car and panicked after veering off the road. He then ran onto the highway and was killed instantly. Ryan’s death wasn’t listed as drug related. Nobody kept numbers at that time and testing for LSD didn’t exist.
At the end of the article, his father said, “You are never the same after the death of a child.” I believe it. As the mother of an 11-year-old, I cannot imagine how devastating that must have been and still is for Ryan’s family and others that have been impacted by similar tragedies.
Ryan’s Family, the Abbas Family from Michigan who lost five family members on their return home from a Florida vacation this past January, the Kowal Family, who’s 15-month old son, Liam, was killed by a drunk driver in California in 2016, and the McMorris Family here in New York, who lost their 12 year old son, Andrew, this past September after he and fellow Boy Scouts were struck by a drunk driver while out on a hike are the reason that impaired driving has been on every Most Wanted List the NTSB has issued since 1990, and they are the reason I’m here today to speak with each of you.
Now, I understand that you’ve spent a great deal of time today discussing drugged driving. It’s a serious issue and one that the NTSB has issued numerous recommendations on, including calls for better testing methods, more training for law enforcement, and issuance of federal-level guidance to standardize the way different drugs are tested and reported. We need to continue focusing on that issue, but we can’t lose sight of one of the greatest safety risks out there: alcohol-impaired driving.
In 2017, 295 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes in New York. In fact, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, New York ranks among the top 20 states with the highest percentage of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities: A third of all traffic fatalities in New York are due to alcohol impairment. And that’s just fatalities; thousands more have suffered life-altering injuries.
Nationwide, the numbers are even more devestating: more than 10,000 people die annually on our nation’s roads in alcohol-impaired crashes, including 220 children.
To put that in perspective, that’s 29 people every single day, or 1 every 48 minutes. That means that during this lunch at least one person will have died in an alcohol-related crash.
The real tragedy is that these deaths are 100% preventable.
We know when someone is impaired by alcohol; there are standards. We can test for it, and we can and should take measures that will deter people from driving under the influence, whether that’s through education, more stringent enforcement and penalties, or changing the legal limit of what is now considered to be alcohol-impaired.
In 2013, the NTSB published a study focused on eliminating alcohol impaired driving and recommended a comprehensive set of 19 targeted actions.
The recommendations include requiring ignition interlocks for all offenders. Many states focus solely on repeat offenders, but research shows that by the time so-called first offenders are convicted, they’ve driven after drinking about 80 times. Fortunately, New York is ahead of our 2013 recommendation. You’ve had an all-offender ignition interlock law since 2010. We hope that will prompt other states to take similar action.
We also recommend the use of high-visibility enforcement to deter impaired driving. This past Monday, Governor Cuomo announced that state police arrested 225 people for impaired driving over the Memorial Day weekend, as part of the STOP-DWI traffic enforcement program. High-visibility enforcement programs help change driver behavior by increasing awareness that there are real consequences for driving while impaired.
We also recommend reducing the legal blood alcohol concentration limit, or BAC, from .08 to .05. Frankly, we’ve taken a lot of heat for that position and I’m not sure why because we aren’t trying to reduce or eliminate drinking; we want to separate drinking from driving. I’ve said it many times: You can drink responsibly. You can drive responsibly, but you can’t responsibly do both.
We all know that drinking and driving kills, but what most people fail to recognize is that impairment begins at the first drink. Even a small amount of alcohol can affect driving ability.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a 160-pound male who consumes two alcoholic drinks in an hour would experience a decline in visual functions and a decline in the ability to perform two tasks at the same time. At 3 drinks, which is about .05 BAC: reduced coordination; reduced ability to track moving objects; and reduced reaction time in emergency driving situations. At 4 drinks, or .08: reduced ability to concentrate, short-term memory loss, difficulty controlling speed, and impaired perception.
We believe that a .05 BAC law will have a broad deterrent effect because it helps prevent impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel in the first place. It encourages them to choose: drinking or driving, not both.
Did you know that since 1988 federal regulations have set a .04 BAC limit for commercial motor vehicle drivers? So why is it ok for me to get in my personal vehicle at .07 but not ok if I’m driving a commercial truck? That makes no sense.
To be honest, we’re behind the times. Over 100 countries have some type of .05 or lower BAC law and, while their average alcohol consumption is the same or higher than the U.S., their alcohol-related deaths are much lower. In the U.S., 29 percent of all traffic fatalities involve drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher. In Germany, for example, the law is .05 and only 9 percent of traffic fatalities are due to impaired driving.
So how will lowering the BAC limit effect the U.S.?
A 2017 research study by the NORC at the University of Chicago showed that from 1982 to 2014 lowering the BAC from .10 to .08 resulted in a 10.4% reduction in alcohol-related fatalities, with no change in alcohol consumption. More than 1,700 lives were saved annually, or a total of 24,868 lives saved between 1983 and 2014. The study estimated that further reducing the BAC from .08 to .05 or lower would result in an 11.1% reduction in fatal alcohol crashes and save 1,790 lives annually in the U.S. This research was cited by the National Academy of Sciences when it recommended that states enact .05 BAC laws.
This past December, Utah became the first state to reduce their BAC limit to .05. Utah was also the first state to reduce BAC limits from .10 to .08 in 1983. Other states, including California, Michigan, Oregon, and your great state of New York, are now considering it.
Two weeks ago, I was in Manhattan with the Kowal Family and the McMorris Family for a press conference to demonstrate the NTSB’s support for Assembly Bill 3208 and Senate Bill 5117, which would reduce the New York BAC law from .08 to .05.
Currently, the law in New York states that a BAC of more than .05 but less than 0.79 is evidence that your ability is impaired by alcohol. A “driving while ability impaired” or DWAI offense is a traffic infraction, not a crime, and as such, it lacks the desired deterrent effect on behavior. Lowering the BAC limit to .05 will serve as the catalyst to change behavior and encourage New Yorkers to separate drinking from driving.
In September, the McMorrises will mark the first anniversary of Andrew’s death. Thousands of other New York families will mark the damage done to their families by a similar tragedy. It’s my hope that by then New York will have passed this commonsense measure and that we are well on our way to a state, and a nation, with zero roadway deaths.
I’m pleased that several organizations have endorsed .05: the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, AAA Utah, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and a host of others. I hope that we can add other AAA clubs to that growing list.
We need your help to get to zero. The only way that happens is if we work together. That’s what will bring about long-term change.