n 2003, for the first time since 1999, the United States experienced a reduction in alcohol-related fatalities. There were 511 fewer alcohol-related traffic deaths in 2003, compared with 2002, which represents nearly a 3 percent reduction. Still, more than 17,000 people died in alcohol-related fatalities. How was this reduction accomplished and what is planned to reduce the numbers in the future?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is pursuing four priority initiatives to reduce alcohol-related fatalities, and high-visibility law enforcement is the foundation of all four.
New Mexico Pilot Test
In 2004 Congress appropriated $3 million to NHTSA to pilot test a comprehensive impaired driving program in one state. NHTSA sought to identify a state with especially high rates of alcohol-related fatalities as well as the ability and willingness to address the problem.
It selected New Mexico. The state had conducted an impaired driving technical assessment in 2002 and received recommendations from an expert panel on what improvements could be made to their efforts to reduce alcohol-related fatalities. In addition, New Mexico convened a statewide task force to develop an impaired driving strategic plan. Under this project, New Mexico sought to address the problem comprehensively by identifying weaknesses in its impaired driving system and filling the gaps. Enhancing its high-visibility enforcement efforts is one of the most critical components of New Mexico's program.
NHTSA's Four Priority Initiatives
Not every state or local police department has the personnel or the resources to implement a comprehensive program addressing all of its highway safety. Therefore, NHTSA has identified four priority initiatives to reduce impaired driving that every state and local community should strive to adopt.
High-Visibility Enforcement: The purpose of high visibility enforcement is not simply to increase the number of arrests or citations; rather, the purpose is to create general deterrence by increasing the perceived risk of arrest. The objective is to convince people not to drive impaired in the first place. This requires enhanced enforcement efforts, sufficient to be noticed by the public, conducted in a highly visible manner and supported by the media, as well as local marketing and advertising.
Criminal Justice System: In particular, NHTSA encourages every state to create a traffic safety resource prosecutor (TSRP) and expand the use of DWI and drug courts. Since impaired driving cases are so challenging and often are assigned to the least experienced prosecutors, TSRPs can provide the training and technical assistance that is so desperately needed for successful prosecutions. DWI and drug courts work to ensure that repeat and high-blood-alcohol-content offenders receive tough sentences (including treatment as appropriate) and that the offenders complete those sentences through close supervision by the judge. Preliminary studies by NHTSA show significant reductions in recidivism rates among offenders who complete these programs.
Medical Screening and Intervention: Impaired driving is a symptom of the broader issue of alcohol abuse and dependency. People with alcohol use problems are not only involved in traffic crashes; they also show up in emergency departments and trauma centers for other injuries and medical conditions related to their use of alcohol. NHTSA is encouraging medical and health care personnel to ask just a few questions of their patients to identify those with alcohol use problems and, as appropriate, briefly intervene at the time of this teachable moment. NHTSA's research shows that brief interventions are effective in changing the behavior of these individuals.
Primary Safety Belt Use Laws: The fourth priority of NHTSA is promoting enactment of primary safety belt use laws. These laws increase safety belt use, and the use of a safety belt is the best protection against an impaired driver.
Strategic Evaluation: High-Visibility Enforcement Works
The strategy that consistently shows the greatest immediate impact on reducing impaired driving is high visibility enforcement. Recent efforts have shown that enforcement's impact is greatly enhanced through the use of media and communications, particularly with paid advertisement that can be placed at times and in markets most likely to reach the intended audience.
In 2002, NHTSA established the Strategic Evaluation States (SES) program, to apply this strategy in states where it was likely to have the greatest impact. Thirteen states that had especially high rates of alcohol-related traffic fatalities initially were selected: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia.
NHTSA planned coordinated impaired driving law enforcement crackdowns (Crackdown) supported by national advertising campaigns and encouraged the strategic evaluation states to conduct sustained enforcement throughout the year. In 2003 Congress provided funds for NHTSA to place paid advertisements in various media during the Crackdown across the country and in markets within the strategic evaluation states.
In 2003, 75 percent of the reduction in alcohol-related fatalities took place in the 13 states participating in the SES program. The 37 other states accounted for only 25 percent of this reduction. This high reduction in SES program states validates the effectiveness of this strategy.
In 2005 two new states (Missouri and South Carolina) joined the SES program, and Congress has continued to support it. In 2004 and 2005 Congress appropriated funds for paid advertising and also to directly support law enforcement efforts.Plans in 2005
The 2005 Crackdown will occur August 19 through September 5, the Labor Day holiday. The 2005 Crackdown continues the NHTSA's branding theme You Drink & Drive. You Lose. NHTSA encourages law enforcement agencies across the United States to conduct extensive, highly visible law enforcement efforts during this time, as well as maintain a sustained basis throughout the year. Traditional law enforcement should strive to work cooperatively with liquor law enforcement as part of their efforts to reduce impaired driving.
Many useful materials will be available prior to the Crackdown. In particular, look for the You Drink & Drive. You Lose planner; the saturation patrol and sobriety checkpoint guide; a low-staffing checkpoint guide; case studies on sustained highly visible impaired driving law enforcement efforts; and seasonal and holiday miniplanners. These and other materials will be available through (www.stopimpaireddriving.org) or (www.nhtsa.gov). For further information, write to Heidi Coleman, chief of the Impaired Driving Division of NHTSA, at (firstname.lastname@example.org). ■