Politicians and police may need to step up their crackdown on drug- and alcohol-impaired drivers, targeting repeat offenders with substance-abuse and mental health problems who also are “disproportionately responsible for fatalities,” a leading traffic safety group recommends.
As the Wall Street Journal reported of new work by the Governors Highway Safety Association and its consultant Pam Fischer:
“Nearly 30% of all vehicular-crash deaths in the U.S. last year were alcohol-related … Last year, 10,511 people died in crashes involving at least one driver with a blood-alcohol concentration of at least .08%, the legal cutoff in every state except Utah, federal figures show. While that represented a 3.6% drop from 2017, alcohol-related fatality levels have largely stagnated for the past decade. ‘What we’re failing to do is get to the root cause of why they’re doing this, what’s behind the behavior,’ [said Fischer].”
Her work for the governors safety group found that:
“[I]n 2010 (the most recent year for which cost data is available) the economic cost of motor vehicle crashes was $242 billion, with drunk driving accounting for $44 billion of that price tag. These figures represent tangible costs such as lost productivity, workplace losses, legal and medical expenses, insurance, emergency response, property damage, and congestion. But in cases of serious injury or death, they do not begin to capture the impact on lost quality of life, which equates to $836 billion for all crashes. Impaired drivers accounted for $201.1 billion of that $836 billion, with HRIDs responsible for the largest share … For those that lost a loved one and/or are caring for a family member with an incapacitating injury resulting from a crash caused by a [high-risk intoxicated driver], the impact is devastating.”
Other research has pointed to the growing abuse by select drivers of not only alcohol but also drugs, too often multiple intoxicants, prescription and illicit. This too often occurs in individuals with known substance abuse and mental health problems, significantly increasing their risk to others when they get behind the wheel.
That’s because, the road safety group reported, studies have found that:
“DUI offenders who suffer from a psychiatric disorder other than a [substance use disorder] are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more quickly … Unfortunately, impaired driver mental health issues are often missed so they go untreated. Loopholes in the criminal justice system, coupled with a lack of awareness of mental health issues among some working to address impaired driving, also mean that these offenders often go unmonitored, fail to comply with their sentences and conditions of supervision and do not receive adequate treatment that produces the long-term behavior change necessary to prevent recidivism. In many cases, they are not held accountable nor do they face consequences for non-compliance resulting in a dangerous cycle that puts all road users at risk.”
The national road safety group says politicians should not act precipitously, for example, by slashing funding for productive roadside sobriety testing programs. Prosecutors also should be persuaded to look beyond across-the-board plans for hard-line convictions and tough sentencing.
Instead, as has occurred in states — including Virginia and Washington — the safety group offers as models of sorts, communities must work toward comprehensive and individualized enforcement of laws and programs to attack high-risk, intoxicated drivers.
These steps might include increased training and resources for police to identify and test for intoxication — not just booze but also drugs, notably marijuana. Police may need additional support, too, so suspects get moved faster from the street to facilities where more rigorous testing can be conducted on them before substances dilute or leave their systems.
Authorities also may need faster, deeper screening of individuals charged and convicted for intoxication, with authorities digging into whether the guilty already have proven substance abuse and mental health problems. Those hauled up on drunk driving charges also may be found to have health or criminal records pointing to problems with prescription or illicit drugs. It may be that these difficult offenders must be dealt with by specially trained prosecutors and sent to specialized courts. They may need longer periods in which they are required to get psychological and expert help for their substance abuse and mental ills. They may need for longer periods to submit to regular and rigorous testing.
This intensive effort may cost more and be more resource intensive, which is why public education campaigns also need to spread the word that what’s good enough now isn’t tackling a key part of the nation’s road safety needs, cutting into hard-core offenders who do extreme damage.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the havoc that can be wreaked on them and their loved ones by car, motorcycle, and truck wrecks, notably those involving abuse of alcohol and dangerous drugs. This heartbreak can be needlessly compounded with outrage when families learn that victims have been seriously injured in collisions caused by motorists with long records of intoxicated and bad driving.
We need not only to do much more to deal with this seemingly intractable core of offenders, we also need to act collectively and individually to improve road safety and slash at the problems of distracted, intoxicated, and drowsy driving. Please don’t text while driving. Please don’t get behind the wheel if you’ve been drinking or using marijuana or other intoxicants. Please check with your doctor or pharmacist, so you’re clear that, yes, your prescription medications, on their own or in combination with other drugs or alcohol, can make you a hazardous driver. And please don’t get in the car if you’re so dog tired you can’t keep your eyes open.
The holidays, of course, can only complicate our best intentions for safe driving. That one cup of cheer with friends and co-workers turns to easily into more than a few. We may be racing to shopping or social events and decide it’s more important than life itself to text that, “I’m running late!” message. Or we may pop a cold pill after a long week of socializing and trying to juggle lots of year-end work, thinking, “Yeah, I’m a little bleary, but the drive home in the storm shouldn’t be too tiring …” Please?
We’ve got a lot of work to do to keep ourselves, loved ones, friends, and colleagues safe on our streets and highways.