The news of late has been trumpeting a happy statistic: alcohol-related road fatalities have dropped below 10,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Lives are being saved, and perhaps people are getting the message that drunk driving is a foolish decision that no one should ever make.
But is that what the number tells us? First, let’s remember that we’ve been here before: drunk driving deaths were below 10,000 in 2011. So we haven’t really made much of a dent in the last three years. All in all, the number of fatalities has been holding pretty steady since 2010.
Which is not to say that progress hasn’t been impressive in the long run. There was a steep decline in alcohol-related road deaths between 2005 and 2010, resulting in 3,000 lives saved. And if you go further back, a picture emerges of how grim things were in the old days.
In 1995, NHTSA published a study comparing DUI deaths in that year with early research in 1982. Its findings:
- Alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1982 – 25,165
- Alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1995 – 17,274
What caused that astonishing 32 percent drop in deaths? It was many factors, none of them accidental:
- MADD began lobbying for stronger anti-drunk driving legislation
- Through the Ad Council and other agencies, the government began advertising and educating people about drinking and driving
- Seat belts and other vehicle safety measures made death a less likely outcome in any vehicle crash
That decline in DUI deaths signified a public safety triumph. By comparison, in the last few years the efforts appear to have stalled. The drop below 10,000 is a small, symbolic one. Why is that?
One theory might be that all of the casual drinkers who can be educated about drunk driving have been. All that’s left are the hard-core drinkers who cannot be swayed by PSAs nor deterred by punishments.
That’s not the right answer, though: it’s an excuse. We know that because the latest NHTSA report on alcohol-impaired driving tracks the previous driving records of drivers involved in fatal crashes.
- Just 7% have previous DWIs
- Just 25% have previous suspensions
What we learn from this is that drivers involved in most fatal crashes are not long-time hard-core drinkers. Then tend to be young – the highest percentage is in the 21-to-24-year-old group – and presumably they can be reached with a message that can save their lives.
The live-saving message to drinkers: plan your night out, find a designated driver, don’t let friends drive drunk.
The message to legislators: automatic suspensions, ignition interlocks for all DUI offenses (including first offenses), education and and sobriety courts all make a difference.
The dip below 10,000 DUI deaths certainly matters. 143 people lived who would have died just a year before – 143 people with families, futures and dreams that are still alive.
But those 9967 people also had things to live for. Which is why our work isn’t done.