Reducing Impaired Driving 2.0

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released this report on fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2018. The number of traffic fatalities nationwide decreased modestly last year as did the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. In North Carolina, the number of fatalities in both categories modestly increased in 2018. In the aggregate, neither the national nor the state numbers reflect much change in the fatality rate associated with traffic crashes generally or impaired driving-related crashes specifically. While there were precipitous declines in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities from 1982 to 2000, since that time the number of impaired driving-related fatalities has remained rather constant. A similar plateau exists for all types of traffic fatalities, for which the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has remained relatively static for the last decade. This flat trend line has safety advocates wondering what they can do, particularly in the impaired driving context, to push the trend line toward zero.

The numbers. There were 36,560 people killed in traffic crashes in the United States in 2018, a 2.4 percent decrease from 2017. Twenty nine percent of those deaths (10,511) were alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities, a 3.6 percent decrease from 2017. In North Carolina, 1,437 people died in traffic crashes in 2018, a 1.8 percent increase from 2017. Twenty nine percent of those deaths were alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities, a 5 percent increase from 2017. Wondering just how impaired drivers involved in fatality crashes are? A 2014 NHTSA report stated that among the 10,076 alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities the previous year, 68 percent were in crashes in which at least one driver in the crash had a BAC of .15  or higher. The most frequently recorded BAC among drinking drivers in fatal crashes in 2013 was .17.

What can be done? I spent this afternoon at a lunch and learn at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. The speaker was veteran highway safety researcher Dr. Robert Foss and the topic was “Reducing Impaired Driving 2.0:  Foundational Considerations for Progress in North Carolina.” Dr. Foss discussed what he had learned during thirty years of field research, academic study, and policy work focusing on the phenomenon of impaired driving and what his recommendations were for a strategy to further reduce deaths from impaired-driving crashes. Among his observations were that deterrence and controlling drinking drivers must be the focus. Foss opined that there simply are too many impaired drivers to ever catch and prosecute them all. And most impaired drivers who are involved in an alcohol-related crash have never (or at least have not recently) been charged with impaired driving. Dr. Foss had two central recommendations: (1) expand ignition interlock; and (2) conduct more high visibility enforcement. As for ignition interlock, Dr. Foss suggested that every driver charged with impaired driving be required to install ignition interlock. He further suggested that ignition interlock be required until the driver could demonstrate that he or she no longer had an alcohol problem. As for high visibility enforcement, Foss note that this type of enforcement does not stretch law enforcement resources too thin and also serves to counter the views of drinking drivers who believe, based on their past experiences of driving while impaired and not being stopped, that they will not be caught.

Foss’s recommendations are not new to the field or this blog (see earlier posts here and here) and are supported by other experts. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published last year recommendations for “Getting to Zero Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities.” Among the recommendations were that states “enact all-offender ignition interlock laws to reduce alcohol-impaired driving fatalities,” requiring ignition interlock for all offenders with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above the limit set by state law. The report also advised states to consider increased monitoring periods based on an offender’s BAC or past recidivism, stating that a 2-year minimum interlock monitoring period is effective for a first offense, and 4 years is effective for a second offense. The report also recommended that states and localities “conduct frequent sobriety checkpoints in conjunction with widespread publicity” to promote awareness of their enforcement initiatives. The authors noted that low-staff checkpoints are effective and are useful in rural areas and in other circumstances when resources for full-scale checkpoints are not available.

The National Academies’ other recommendations include increasing alcohol excise taxes, lowering state per se laws for alcohol-impaired driving to 0.05 BAC, preventing illegal alcohol sales to underage persons and to intoxicated adults, strengthening regulation of alcohol marketing, and implementing policies to reduce the physical availability of alcohol. The report also recommended that every state implement DWI courts that require offenders to be evaluated by an addiction-trained clinician, and, when medically indicated, place offenders in a program that includes relapse prevention medication and requires the offender to receive cognitive behavioral therapy.

What do you think?  The most recent changes to North Carolina’s impaired driving laws have, on the one hand, ratcheted up the punishment (by adding a super-aggravating factor and creating Aggravated Level One sentences) and on the other, reduced potential jail time for defendants who participate in continuous alcohol monitoring. Neither effort has precipitated a significant reduction in alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities. Thus, researchers, advocates and policy makers continue to look for a solution. Have your own ideas?  Use the comment feature to share them here.

8 thoughts on “Reducing Impaired Driving 2.0”

  1. Expand the impact of a DWI charge beyond losing your license for a short period of time. Hunting license: Suspended. Concealed Carry: Suspended. Law license: Suspended. Pilot’s License…well, I think that one already may be affected. Impose more severe consequences on multiple levels and the more priors, the more severe.

    Limit the appeals to convictions in District Court or make the consequences of frivolous appeals unappealing enough to discourage them. Snarling a case in court with continuances and motions to prepare is a time-honored tradition, but one that needs to be curtailed.

    Finally, just as there’s been movement toward charging drug dealers for the deaths of their customers, if the drunk driver’s source of impairment can be linked back to a bar or club, hammer them on that end, too. Rather than getting bogged down on who served the driver what and how much, enact laws that make the establishment or establishment owner responsible. Take that liquor license for a couple months and see if they don’t tighten up on serving intoxicated persons.

    • “Limit the appeals to convictions in District Court or make the consequences of frivolous appeals unappealing enough to discourage them. Snarling a case in court with continuances and motions to prepare is a time-honored tradition, but one that needs to be curtailed.”

      You can’t burden someone’s right to appeal to a jury trial, it’s enshrined in the Constitution.

      Rather than “limiting appeals,” you could instead elevate DWI to a felony that’s still plea-able in district court, like H and I felonies. That way you can still dispose of them in district court if the defendants want to plea out, but they only get one bite at the trial apple and we avoid so much pointless litigation in district court.

  2. Get District Court Judges to follow the law. I have witnessed many times over the last 28 years where there are clear cut violations of the law (even on video) and the judges find no PC. In Legal Update this year people had to be reminded that actually crossing the double-yellow line on a road is, in fact, a violation of law (see State v. Sutton Until the mess we call a judicial system is fixed there will be no significant change in the numbers, especially DWI’s.

  3. The premise that high visibility of law enforcement will not be taxing is indicative of the fantasyland many live in. Our LEO’s are stretched too thin as shown by response times and distances needed to travel to arrive, simple auto accidents take up their time as well as the calls for service for domestic violence, shoplifting and all the misd and felony activities. Drunk Driving was always my pet peeve as a police officer and no one was ever given a break but too often the high priced attorney gets their money and the offender gets a light sentence or probation. A joke and slap in my face as well as every person who could have been a victim. If a young man was sentenced recently for 34 months in prison for throwing a rock off an overpass and killing another young man in a car then drunk driving will always be seen as that “unfortunate event we all do but don’t get caught in” bullshit!

  4. Instead of focusing on punishment punishment punishment, hang them and cut off their fingers, etc, what about prevention? Alcohol consumption is as old as the history of man; cars are a current-century invention. Now we have all kinds of other impairing substances out there, including prescription pills that can have unexpected effects. Alcohol/other substances impairs decisions and many don’t plan ahead; the worry about driving home or a checkpoint is reduced as impairment increases. If the courts and law enforcement are truly concerned about PREVENTING drunk driving (as opposed to just charging people for it after it’s too late), why is there not more being done to say, partner with Uber,/Lyft in some way with “high-visibility” ad campaigns specifically related to avoiding drinking and then driving, make public transportation more available and pervasive? No amount of traffic enforcement will ever stop impaired driving. Ever. Fallacy. When you make access larger than ever and cost low enough, people would take Uber or even traditional public trans in larger numbers. Let’s face it, MADD and the courts and LE exist to charge people; they aren’t interested in prevention else it would render them obsolete. That goes with most laws, for that matter.

    Let’s see the NCGA allocate tax dollars from that rainy day fund too partner with an ad agency and then subsidize Uber rides and see what that does. Oh, it will never happen because that’s not the true intent.

    BTW, this will (mostly) be moot when self-driving technology becomes the norm…

  5. I feel the issue is getting the knowledge out about what makes you impaired. No one teaches this until it’s too late. There’s just a fear factor of don’t drink and drive. Most people don’t know or understand that you can get a DWI with your medication prescribed to you or from smoking marijuana. Additionally, most people also don’t know what amount of alcohol can make you impaired and how that varies. If we focusing on teaching this instead of punishing after the fact, I think there would be more of a chance of no fatalities. There could be classes or videos you are required to watch prior to getting or renewing your license or prior to getting a controlled prescription. There could be an inexpensive breathalyzer distributed by the ABC to establishments with their alcohol permits to allow people to use before leaving to teach them how their bodies handle alcohol. Key-chain breathalyzers could be given away at the liquor stores promoting the teaching of this. There are so many preventive actions that could be taken.

  6. The study says at least 71% of traffic fatalities are caused by sober drivers. 29% involve impaired drivers, which includes fatalities which involve an impaired driver but are caused wholly by a sober driver. Lumping together all fatalities involving impaired drivers whether the impaired driver is at fault or not indicates faulty analysis, creating a false increase in fatalities perceived as being caused by impaired driving. My point is that this and other similar studies are dishonestly slanted to make impaired driving the primary culprit of traffic fatalities.
    The study further states that most (more than half of) traffic fatalities (no actual percentage is given) involving impaired drivers involve first-time DWI offenders or at least offenders who have not recently had a DWI. That means that the increased punishments recommended would not impact most of those DWI-involved fatalities. Half of 29 % is 14.5%, so the increased punishment addresses less than 14.5 % of traffic fatalities. We need to address more than that.
    A better study would not set out to demonize impaired driving but would set out to figure out the actual causes of the traffic fatalities. Common sense indicates that most of the traffic fatalities involve someone driving badly and colliding with something else. Which types of bad driving primarily led to the collisions? Speeding to the point of losing control? Changing direction of travel without signalling? Driving too slowly, thereby pressuring other drivers to pass where they should not pass? Over-correcting after running off the road? If bad driving leads to traffic fatalities, then requiring people to be better drivers, especially focusing on the more frequent bad-driving causes of fatalities, should lead to less fatalities. Make driving skills a more stringent component of getting a driver’s license.
    How many of the fatalities were caused by drivers who had caused accidents in the past? If a high percentage, then we should make anyone who causes an accident take increased driver training classes, especially hands-on training to make them more skillful drivers.
    Most of us would likely acknowledge that the roads are full of bad drivers,whether they be sober or drunk. Drivers who change lanes without signalling, drift into bicycle lanes, refuse to turn right on red, refuse to enter an intersection to make a left turn until they have a quarter mile of no oncoming traffic in front of them, drive slowly in the passing lane, change lanes without looking over their shoulders, swerve left in order to make a right-hand turn, etc. Requiring everyone to be better drivers before giving them licenses to drive would likely reduce traffic fatalities more than increasing the hammering that impaired drivers already get in court.

  7. Requiring someone to install ignition interlock simply because they are “charged”, and then require them to maintain it “until they can prove that they no longer have an alcohol problem” completely and further tramples on the “innocent until proven guilty” philosophy of our judicial system. That philosophy has almost been eliminated from DWI cases as it is, and this would be another huge step in that unconstitutional direction.


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