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Back to Archives | Back to March 2013 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

NTSB Issues Safety Recommendations to IACP

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

drop cap The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated wrong-way driving crashes and also held a two-day forum last spring in Washington, D.C., called “Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving.” As a result of these efforts, the NTSB tasked the IACP and the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) with Safety Recommendations H-12-37 and H-12-49.1

Wrong-Way Driving Crashes

Each year in the United States, there are relatively few collisions where vehicles traveling the wrong-way on controlled-access highways strike, usually head-on, other vehicles traveling lawfully in the prescribed direction (that is, right-way drivers). Yet, on average, 360 lives were lost annually between 2004 and 2009 in 260 fatal crashes, which represent about three percent of the collisions on controlled-access highways. More than 75 percent of these collisions occurred between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.; about 57 percent happened on weekends (Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays); and most of them took place in the lane immediately adjacent to the median. The vast majority of wrong-way driving crashes resulted from drivers erroneously entering controlled-access highways using exit ramps.2

Alcohol impairment clearly is the primary cause of wrong-way driving collisions. While only 6.5 percent of right-way drivers in this type of fatal collision between 2004 and 2009 had alcohol involvement, approximately 60 percent of wrong-way drivers in these fatal crashes had alcohol involvement. Almost 70 percent of those drivers for which blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) were available had BACs of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or greater, with 10 percent being between .08 and .15 g/dL and 59 percent at .15 or above g/dL.3 The NTSB believes a more accurate understanding of alcohol impairment in these and other types of fatal collisions could result from increased collection and reporting of BACs.4 For example, fewer states reported BAC results for more than 80 percent of fatally injured drivers in 2010 (23 states) than in 1990 (28 states), and the reporting rate for two states (Alabama and Iowa) was less than 25 percent.5

Another cause of wrong-way driving crashes is drivers aged over 70 years, who were overrepresented in fatal wrong-way driving collisions between 2004 and 2009. In fact, the number of wrong-way drivers exceeded that of right-way drivers only in every 10-year age category above 70 years. There were almost 2.5 times more wrong-way drivers between 70 years old and 79 years old and in excess of 30 times more of them were over 80 years old.6

One immediate safety initiative that police chiefs and law enforcement executives can undertake is to caution officers, like the California Highway Patrol did, to drive on controlled-access highways—especially during nighttime hours—in lanes in other than the lane immediately adjacent to the median:

When driving on a freeway or divided highway at night, consider wrong-way drivers, most of whom are either under the influence of alcohol/drugs or confused. In either case, impaired drivers will usually be found in the left lane which is perceived as the right lane. When cresting an overpass or rounding a curve at legal speeds, there may be a closing rate of 110 mph or 165 feet per second. At this speed, the only chance would be to instantly swerve the vehicle; braking would be futile. The only real defense against the wrong-way driver is to watch well ahead. When the line of sight is reduced because of the highway configuration, the odds are better driving in the right lanes.7

The NTSB recommended that the 33 states that have not enacted laws requiring the use of alcohol ignition interlocks by all drivers convicted of an impaired-driving offense, along with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, do so. It also highlighted the incentive to pass such legislation that is included in the recently enacted Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21); MAP-21 directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to award special grants to states that mandate the use of alcohol ignition interlocks by all of those convicted of impaired-driving violations.8 Thus, the NTSB recommendation expands the scope of an existing effective technology in order to spare additional lives. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data indicate that drivers with BACs of .08 or higher involved in fatal crashes in 2011 were seven times more likely to have had a prior impaired-driving conviction than were drivers without alcohol impairment at the time of the fatal crash.9

Research indicates that limited enforcement of impaired-driving statutes can allow offenders to drive under the influence between 200 and 2,000 times prior to apprehension and that even high-visibility enforcement of these laws still can permit them to drive impaired 80 times before an arrest.10 To vastly reduce the number of impaired-drivers who escape capture, the NTSB encourages NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety Incorporated to expedite the development and implementation of passive safety technologies, such as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), as opposed to active ones, such as alcohol ignition interlocks. DADSS is intended at this stage of development to detect BAC passively using two sensor systems: one based on breath, and the other based on touch.12 but it currently is at least a decade away from being available as optional equipment in new vehicles.14 The IACP Highway Safety Committee (HSC) intends to begin exploring Safety Recommendation H-12-49 at its 2013 Agenda Screening Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, this month.

The Place of Last Drink

Responsible alcoholic beverage service either in commercial establishments or in private settings is key to reducing impaired-driving arrests and collisions. “Dram shop liability laws,” which have been enacted in 43 states and the District of Columbia, allow victims of impaired-driving crashes or their families to hold bars and alcohol beverage retailers civilly liable for death, injury, or damage caused by intoxicated customers.15 Similarly, “social host liability laws,” some form of which have been passed in 27 states, operate to hold private individuals legally responsible for knowingly serving alcohol to minors or intoxicated adults who subsequently drive vehicles that are involved in collisions resulting in death or injury.16 Obviously, determining the place of last drink (POLD) is crucial to the successful enforcement of such laws. Additionally, ascertaining POLD can bolster an impaired-driving arrest by providing a time frame as to where, when, and what the defendant was last served. Consequently, the NTSB recommended that the IACP and the NSA inform their members of the value of collecting POLD data as a part of any arrest or crash investigation involving an alcohol-impaired driver.17 The HSC will discuss Safety Recommendation H-12-37 at its 2013 Agenda Screening Meeting.

The NTSB remains concerned about the following substance abuse–related driving issues:

  • Alcohol-impaired collision deaths involving drivers with BACs equal to or greater than .08 g/dL decreased from 49 percent of total traffic fatalities in 1982 to 33 percent of them in 1994 and essentially have remained stagnant since 1994,18 accounting for 31 percent of total traffic deaths in 2011.19
  • Driving under the influence of drugs is increasing, but its magnitude cannot yet be measured because standards for post-crash drug testing and reporting have not been established.20

The HSC welcomes these opportunities to partner with the NTSB to reduce the deaths and the debilitating injuries relating to wrong-way driving crashes and to substance impairment. ♦

1Deborah A.P. Hersman to Joseph A. Farrow and Aaron D. Kennard, November 21, 2012, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Safety Recommendation, H-12-37, (accessed January 28, 2013); and Hersman to Craig Steckler, December 26, 2012, NTSB Safety Recommendation H-12-49, (accessed January 28, 2013).
2NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, December 11, 2012, 1, Highway Special Investigation Report NTSB/SIR-12/01, (accessed January 28, 2013).
4Hersman to Farrow and Kennard, November 21, 2012, 2, (accessed January 28, 2013).
5Ibid., 3; NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, 11.
6NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, 37.
7Department of California Highway Patrol, Enforcement Driving Guide, July 10, 2008, 5-6, (accessed January 28, 2013).
8NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, 35, 58.
9NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA), Traffic Safety Facts: 2011 Data Alcohol-Impaired Driving, NHTSA publication no. DOT HS 811 700, December 2012, 4-5, (accessed January 28, 2013).
10Traffic Injury Research Foundation, Understanding Drunk Driving, 2010, 9–10,"> (accessed January 28, 2013).
11NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, 35-37, 58.
12Michael Walsh, “Alcohol Detecting Technology Could Save 10,000 a Year from Drunk-Driving Death: Scientists,” New York Daily News, January 3, 2013, (accessed January 28, 2013).
13NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, 37.
14Ibid., 52, 58.
15FindLaw, “Dram Shop Laws,” (accessed January 28, 2013).
16FindLaw, “Social Host Liability,” (accessed January 28, 2013).
17Hersman to Farrow and Kennard, November 21, 2012, 8, (accessed January 28, 2013).
18Ibid., 1; NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, 55.
19NCSA, Traffic Safety Facts: 2011 Data Alcohol-Impaired Driving, 1.
20Hersman to Farrow and Kennard, November 21, 2012, 7–8, (accessed January 28, 2013); NTSB, Wrong-Way Driving, 39–40.

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "NTSB Issues Safety Recommendations to IACP," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 80 (March 2013): 64–66.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 3, March 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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