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Traffic safety policy needs to move into the 21st Century

The question is, with so many new impairment challenges, why does the federal government continue to plow taxpayer money into studies that continue to treat alcohol as the only challenge to traffic safety?

Nassau County Police department conducts a DWI checkpoint

Nassau County Police department conducts a DWI checkpoint at the start of the New Year on Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown on Thursday Jan. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Kristy Leibowitz

A new year, a new report centered on the dangers of alcohol and driving. The study from the National Academies of Sciences examines the country’s policies toward drunken driving and makes recommendations to further diminish the problem.

This report is like all the others in its sizable oeuvre, containing a predictable set of misguided proposals: Raise alcohol taxes even higher, further lower the drunken driving arrest threshold from 0.08 to 0.05 Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), expand the use of sobriety checkpoints, reduce alcohol availability, and so on. All policies that will do little to save lives.

The “solutions” to drunken driving have remained maddeningly formulaic over the last couple of decades, while the problem has changed dramatically.

For starters, drunken driving has already been significantly reduced.

Beginning with the launch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s, penetrative public-service campaigns and policies that targeted high-BAC and repeat offenders led to a massive reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities. In fact, the death rate per 100,000 Americans has dropped by 65 percent since 1982.

But the tremendous cultural progress made in the war on drunken driving is being offset by new impairment challenges. Legalized marijuana, devastating levels of opioid use, and cell phone addiction have given rise to an epidemic of drugged and distracted driving.

California recently became the eighth state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, and a majority of other states already have statutes in place to make it more available. Colorado — which made the move to legalize marijuana toward the end of 2012 — has already experienced a corresponding increase in fatal crashes. Since 2013, the number of traffic deaths involving a driver who tested positive for the drug has more than doubled.

To make matters worse, Americans are still largely unaware about the dangers of driving while high, and there is still yet to be a reliable roadside test that measures impairment.

Prescription drugs — such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine — are also wreaking havoc on our roads. Since 1995, the percent of drivers killed in crashes that tested positive for prescription narcotics have increased considerably — fivefold for men and sevenfold for women. In fact, for the first time in 2017, the number of drivers killed in crashes involving drugged drivers surpassed those of alcohol.

Meanwhile, smartphones, dashboard displays and endless new gadgets are always competing for our attention — whether we are behind the wheel or not. Having our eyes on these devices and not on the road can affect our driving performance considerably. A new study from the United Kingdom’s Transport Research Laboratory found that smartphone distractions can shorten reaction distance by almost 50 feet at highway speeds.

The question is, with so many new impairment challenges, why does the federal government continue to plow taxpayer money into studies that continue to treat alcohol as the only challenge to traffic safety?

It is understandable that traffic officials and their researching arms can’t seem to expand their sights beyond the fight against drunken driving. It has been one of the biggest traffic safety success stories of the last 40 years. And it is more comfortable remaining in a routine, rather than beginning a new campaign. But when problems change, so must our approach to fighting them.

We all care about saving lives and we shouldn’t stop looking for new ways to combat drunken driving deaths, but continuing to apply the same old dusty tactics to modern traffic safety issues won’t have the desired lifesaving effect. Officials need to revamp traffic safety policy for the 21st century and develop strategies that will effectively address emerging safety threats and cultivate new tactics to combat evolving problems of the past.

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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