More Efforts Needed to Curb Drunk Driving

With alcohol-related traffic deaths again on the rise after coming to a near-standstill in the early 1990s, the United States has been given a "C" grade in the war on drunk driving, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the GuideOne Foundation. The last time MADD issued the "Rating the States" report was in 1999 when the nation earned a "C+" grade.

"C is for complacency," said MADD National President Wendy J. Hamilton, who pointed out that while alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped by 40 percent between the time MADD was founded in 1980 and 1993, progress then stalled. Alcohol-related crash deaths leveled off at about 16,500 between 1993 and 1999. Even more troubling, over the past three years, drunk driving deaths have climbed by five percent.

Last year, 17,448 were killed in alcohol-related crashes -- representing 41 percent of all traffic deaths. More than 500,000 Americans are injured annually in crashes involving alcohol. The annual economic cost of alcohol-related crashes exceeds $114 billion.

"The nation should be acing this fight for our lives because drunk driving is 100 percent preventable," Hamilton said. "The nation's lower grade reflects the lack of political will, leadership and resources dedicated to waging a winning war on drunk driving."

The MADD report cards graded the nation, each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico on efforts to combat the most frequently committed violent crime -- drunk driving -- and to combat underage drinking -- the number one youth drug problem.

At the federal level, in the area of political leadership, MADD dropped the Administration's grade to a "C" since the last "Rating the States" report, while the U.S. Senate earned a "B+," and the U.S. House a "C." Nationally, law enforcement programs and blood-alcohol testing and data collection efforts improved to a "C+." Passage of administrative measures and criminal sanctions nationwide remained above average at a "B-," youth programs and underage drinking prevention efforts dropped to a "C+" grade, and victims programs dropped to a "D+."

Hamilton said that the nation's grade was lowered to a "C" in part due to an increase in the country's alcohol-related traffic deaths, illustrating the "urgent need for more government resources dedicated to drunk driving and underage drinking as well as strong leadership" from Congress, the Bush Administration and other elected officials.

"The war on drunk driving has reached a complacent plateau, and we must change the dangerous public perception that the fight against drunk driving has been won," added Hamilton.

On the statewide level, no state earned an "A" in this year's report. California received the highest grade of a "B+," followed by Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon, which received "B" grades. The only state to receive a failing "F" grade was Montana. The District of Columbia received a "D+," North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and South Dakota received "D"s. Alaska and Massachusetts each received a "D-."

Sixty percent of each state's overall grade was based on its alcohol-related fatality trend and priority drunk driving laws. The other 40 percent was based on political leadership, blood-alcohol testing and records, law enforcement programs, administrative measures and criminal sanctions, underage drinking prevention, and victim issues.

MADD has identified several top priority laws for states to adopt: administrative license revocation (ALR); .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC)/illegal per se; primary enforcement safety belt laws; mandatory alcohol assessment and treatment; mandatory BAC testing for all drivers in fatal crashes; hospital BAC reporting; victims' rights constitutional amendments; vehicle impoundment; and ignition interlock laws.

"At the rate we are going, one-third of Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some point in their lives," said Jim Wallace, president and CEO of GuideOne Insurance. "That is unacceptable. Clearly, the nation and all of the states can and should do better."

Cleveland-based journalist Luigi Fraschini never mixes alcohol and driving. He has written on auto safety issues for several publications.

Teens Distracted?

As if teenagers don't have enough to distract them, what with food, music, grooming and, oh, yes, the opposite sex, now they have the cellular telephone as well. Sadly, teenagers don't have a very good record of staying focused -- just ask any high school teacher -- so getting them to stay focused behind the wheel is a daunting task.

Recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research shows that teen drivers are four times more likely to be involved in a distraction-related collision than any other age group. In addition, a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study demonstrated that drivers under the age of 20 are most susceptible to driving distractions.

Unfortunately, many teen drivers don't understand the dangers of driving while distracted. While most new drivers today can describe the dangers of speeding or driving drunk, few comprehend the one contributing factor that causes the most collisions: driver distractions. A recent NHTSA research study shows that driver distractions contribute to one in four automobile collisions. Further, traffic collisions are the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 20.

Clearly, distracted driving is a danger to teens, and the increasing prevalence of cell phones is not making it any better. To help address this problem Cingular Wireless, using technical assistance provided by the NHTSA, created "Be Sensible: Don't drive yourself to distraction, a teen driving program including a video, detailed educator's guide, educational wall poster and classroom activities to help teenage students overcome driver distraction." In putting the program together, Cingular sought the counsel of the nation's top driver education advisors including NHTSA, the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA) and the Driving School Association of the Americas (DSAA). Recently, Maryland became the first state to adopt the program for sanctioned use. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration will distribute Cingular's driving curriculum to its Rookie Driver driving school owners and instructors.

In the short (9-minute) video, teens are warned about everyday distractions like eating, talking with friends, applying makeup, adjusting the radio, and, of course, speaking on a cell phone. Without preaching, the video suggests that teen drivers drive safely and responsibly, while helping them eliminate or manage distractions by giving common-sense advice such as letting a cell phone call go to voice mail or asking a passenger to change the radio station. The video even warns teenagers about the possible distractions that can be caused by children or pets. It also discusses out-of-the-car distractions, including friends in other vehicles, billboards and hotties walking down the street.

The "Be Sensible: Don't drive yourself to distraction" program is designed for high school students in health, safety and driver's education classes. All program materials are currently available for delivery to teachers at no charge by Cingular Wireless through the Video Placement Worldwide (VPW) Web site. It's something your kids' teachers might want to learn about.

Jack R. Nerad is the managing editor of Driving Today and the father of three daughters who are already in love with cellular telephones.

Psychology of Aggression

In the aftermath of the September 11th tragedy, the nation adopted a posture of compassion and tolerance that recalled an earlier, simpler time. But now that more than a year has passed and the country has returned to "normal," a leading behavioral scientist warns motorists to expect an increase in aggressive driving as the widespread compassion seen after the September 11th terrorist attacks becomes a relic of the past.

"Traumatic loss, such as we experienced on September 11, makes us humanize one another," Steven Stosny, Ph.D., director of CompassionPower and a behavioral specialist, said. "We need to comfort and be comforted. When we look for human connection, we're not aggressive; the antidote to aggression is compassion. Unfortunately, this has been short-lived. The problems we're seeing now on our roads and highways are a reflection of a wider community problem of resentment and anger."

What constitutes "aggressive driving?" According to safety experts, the term includes behaviors like speeding, running red lights and stop signs, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic to gain position, using the shoulder of the road instead of waiting in backed-up traffic and "sweeping," or moving across more than one lane of traffic without pausing.

All these actions are most often unsafe, yet thousands seem compelled to drive in this style, threatening others on the highway. Stosny thinks that anger and frustration are key reasons.

"We get the most angry when we feel the most powerless," he said. "Resentful and angry people make themselves even more powerless by blaming their emotions on traffic, the design of the highway and other drivers. The more we focus on what we can't control, such as heavy traffic, the more powerless we feel, and the more we take this feeling out on other drivers."

Why do these feelings manifest themselves on the road? That's easy, replies the expert: on the road, nobody knows who we are.

"Arenas where aggression can be played out are school, home, work, or the highway," Stosny said. "It's most likely to be played out in driving because we don't know the other drivers. We're anonymous."

Interestingly, psychological factors are acerbated by physiological changes associated with anger that also encourage aggressive driving.

"Anger dilates the eyes, distorts depth perception and gives us better peripheral vision," Stosny added. "That's why so many aggressive driving behaviors include tailgating and cutting off other drivers, because aggressive drivers misjudge distances."

Stosny suggests that motorists confronted with aggressive drivers get out of their way, avoid eye contact, ignore rude gestures and resist the temptation to "teach them a lesson." Don't let a jerk make you a jerk, he recommends. Motorists also should avoid tailgating and blocking the passing lane, especially if they are driving more slowly than most of the traffic. He recommends that motorists pull over and dial 911 on their cell phones to report aggressive drivers.

Stosny conducts anger regulation classes to help aggressive drivers understand their behavior behind the wheel and empower themselves by ensuring the safety of every child and adult in every car they see. He is a member of the Smooth Operator Coalition -- a group of officials, government agencies and private sector partners in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. One goal of the program is to warn people of the seriousness of the aggressive driving problem and the steps that can be taken to reduce aggressive driving.

A student of the human condition who is very familiar with aggression, Tom Ripley writes about the automotive world from his home in Villeperce, France.

Saving Lives One at a Time

You don't know the name Nils Bohlin, but Nils Bohlin has saved more than a million people from sudden death in the last half century. His achievement? The creation of a feature found in every vehicle manufactured today, 43 years after its invention: the three-point safety belt.

A retired Volvo safety engineer, Bohlin was among 16 inventors inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, this year. More than 168 inventors have been immortalized in the NIHF during the past 30 yea rs -- individuals whose creations have shaped the way in which we live, such as Eli Whitney for the cotton gin and Orville and Wilbur Wright for the airplane, among others.

There is no doubt that Bohlin's invention has been a significant one in t he annals of automotive safety. According to the Volvo Car Corporation Traffic Accident Research Team, the three-point safety belt reduces the risk of injury or death in automobile accidents by 75 percent. It is believed to have saved as many as one mi ll ion lives since its development.

Bohlin began his career in engineering in the mid-1950s in the Swedish aviation industry, designing efficient ejector seats. At the time, the few safety belts installed in cars were anchored behind the car seat s a nd strapped across the body with the buckle placed over the abdomen. Unfortunately in high-speed crashes, this design allowed the body to move, and with the awkward position of the buckle, the belt itself could cause injury to body organs.

In 195 8, Volvo recruited Bohlin as the company's first dedicated safety engineer, and shortly thereafter, he translated his ideas into reality. Based on his experience designing ejector seats, the Swedish engineer understood the limitations of restraint de vices and turned his attention to restraining the human body as safely as possible under extreme movements.

"I realized both the upper and lower body must be held securely in place with one strap across the chest and one across the hips," he said. "T he belt also needed an immovable anchorage point for the buckle as far down beside the occupant's hip, so it could hold the body properly during a collision. It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conven iently with one hand."

Just a year after hiring Bohlin, Volvo introduced the patented three-point safety belt in European markets. By the mid-1960s, its availability and use became widespread in the United States as well. Today, nearly 70 percent of Americans buckle up and 49 states have safety belt laws. One hundred percent utilization of seat belts is the goal set by most safety organizations and lawmakers.

Unfortunately, Bohlin, who currently resides in Sweden, was unable to at tend th e Hall of Fame ceremony, but his sons, Gunnar and Hakan Ornmark, accepted the award on his behalf. And Bohlin should accept the gratitude of millions of drivers and passengers whose lives have been enhanced by his invention.

Based in Vill eperce, France, Tom Ripley is always looking for ways to make life safer for himself and those he loves.

Getting MADD All Over Again

America's effort to curb deaths caused by drunk or drug-impaired drivers has become a crusade for activists, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but some have asked if the crusade has stalled. Statistics reinforce that view. Between 1980, the year MADD was founded, and 1994, alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped by a dramatic 43 percent. Many credit MADD with contributing mightily to that rapid decline, since the organization did so much to sear the issue into the public consciousness. Since then, however, the annual drunk driving death toll has stalled at approximately 16,000 to 17,000. In 2000, alcohol-related traffic deaths jumped by the largest percentage on record, and preliminary reports of last year's data show virtually no change in crashes involving alcohol, which now represent 40 percent of total highway fatalities.

With all this as background, MADD has unveiled a new eight-point action plan to jumpstart the war against what it calls "the most frequently committed violent crime in the nation, drunk driving."

"The good news is that since 1980, an estimated 200,000 alcohol-related traffic deaths have been prevented," said MADD National President Millie I. Webb. "But, the bad news is that since 1994 the war on drunk driving has flat-lined. We are losing ground and losing lives."

What is most frustrating to many of the anti-drunk-driving crusaders is that so much progress was followed by a period in which no progress seems to have been made at all.

"The light that we thought we saw at the end of the tunnel appears to be the headlights of an oncoming crash caused by public and political complacency," added Webb. "The complacent plateau our nation has been riding since 1994 is unacceptable."

To combat what it sees as complacency, MADD convened a National Impaired Driving Summit in January to bring together leading experts to identify the most effective countermeasures to significantly cut alcohol-related traffic deaths and injuries. Based on those discussions, MADD now is urging the nation to embrace the following top eight actions to sharply reduce alcohol-impaired driving:
  1. Resuscitate the nation's efforts to prevent impaired driving by re-igniting public passion and calling on the citizens and the nation's leaders to "Get MADD All Over Again."

  2. Increase DWI/DUI enforcement, especially the use of frequent, highly publicized sobriety checkpoints, which have been proven one of the most effective weapons in the war on drunk driving.

  3. Enact primary enforcement seat belt laws in all states because seat belts are the best defense against impaired drivers. MADD recommends the federal government give states a brief incentive period, followed by withholding federal highway funds from states that do not enact primary belt laws.

  4. Enact tougher, more comprehensive sanctions geared toward higher-risk drivers -- repeat offenders, drivers with high blood-alcohol levels, and DWI/DUI offenders driving with suspended licenses.

  5. Develop a dedicated National Traffic Safety Fund to support ongoing and new priority traffic safety programs.

  6. Reduce underage drinking -- the No. 1 youth drug problem - through improving minimum drinking age laws, adopting tougher alcohol advertising standards and increasing enforcement and awareness of laws such as "zero tolerance drinking-driving" and sales to minors.

  7. Increase beer excise taxes to equal the current excise tax on distilled spirits. Higher beer taxes are associated with lower rates of traffic fatalities and youth alcohol consumption.

  8. Reinvigorate court-monitoring programs to identify shortcomings in the judicial system and produce higher conviction rates and stiffer sentences for offenders. "In this new era of homeland security, we cannot forgo the domestic fight against drunk driving," Webb said. "If the estimated 300 Americans who died last week and the 300 that will likely die this week in alcohol-related crashes suddenly and violently perished all at once, the national crisis that threatens us every day would be clear. [Yet] one by one Americans are needlessly falling through dangerous gaps in the drunk driver control system in nearly every state and community. This tragic problem is 100 percent preventable."

    Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on safety issues and the automobile industry for Driving Today and other publications.