With the US government preparing the 2016 traffic fatality statistics for release soon, the Center for Alcohol Policy (CAP) hosted veteran researcher Jim Fell and NHTSA’s Chief Safety Scientist Joseph Kolly to explore “The Future of Impaired Driving Countermeasures” at the CAP conference last week. Kolly reminded that the dramatic progress in reducing annual alcohol-impaired crash deaths from over 21,000 in 1982 to under 10,000 in 2011 has stalled over the last 5 years or so. And while the number of alcohol-impaired crash deaths hasn’t changed in recent years, the percentage of all drivers involved in fatal crashes with a BAC of .08 or higher hasn’t changed in two decades, stuck at approximately 20%, though down from over 1/3 in 1982.
Can technology bring back a sharp reduction, or possibly eliminate, alcohol-impaired driving deaths? MADD and other safety groups seem to believe so. NHTSA, along with private partners in the auto industry, hope the DADSS system will ultimately prevent any impaired person from starting or operating a vehicle. They seek a quick, accurate, reliable, low-cost solution that can “instantly” tell whether a driver is impaired, Kolly pointed out. Possibilities include a breath- or touch-based detection system, or, ultimately, automated vehicles that require no driver input at all. But these technologies, especially automated vehicles, will take time and “we are still a long ways away” from driverless cars, Kolly said. He presented data that suggests a focus on repeat offenders and high-BAC drivers would be appropriate. Also, in addition to driving at high BACs, “roughly 2/3 of the alcohol-impaired drivers were also either unrestrained [no seat belt] or speeding or a combination of both.” And about 1/5 were both unrestrained and speeding. Kolly did not make specific policy recommendations, but said “waiting for technology is not a wise choice for the near term” and a “combination of approaches” is needed.