According to the National Safety Council, this Labor Day weekend may be the deadliest on record since 2008. The NSC forecasts that 421 people will be killed and another 48,400 people injured on our roads during the upcoming holiday weekend — 11 percentage points above the holiday’s average.
It’s a reminder that many of the policies aimed at reducing traffic fatalities — although well intentioned — are not working.
In response to the predicted carnage, law enforcement and other traffic safety officials are rightly attempting to mitigate traffic deaths by implementing “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” initiatives designed to educate the public on the dangers of drunken driving.
But education programs are not the only tactic that traffic safety officials have experimented with to combat drunken driving. Some examples include the mandated installation of ignition interlock devices (IID) in every DUI offender’s vehicle, the consideration of lowering the nationally recognized blood-alcohol arrest threshold of .08 to .05, and the strategy commonly used on holiday weekends like Labor Day, sobriety checkpoints.
While some traffic safety officials claim these strategies reduce the number of drunken drivers on the road, it doesn’t mean they are actually effective. In fact, many of these tactics are heavily flawed and only act as an impediment to truly solving the drunken driving problem.
For instance, it has been proven that if enforced correctly, the installation of IIDs in the vehicles of DUI offenders does stop them from driving. However, when this policy is applied to all DUI offenders, instead of targeted at high-BAC and repeat offenders, effective enforcement becomes too costly for state budgets to accommodate, which leaves the hardcore drunken drivers — who cause 70 percent of alcohol-involved traffic fatalities — out on the roads with insufficient supervision to ensure they aren’t starting the engine after a long night of drinking. It’s a problem of spreading limited resources too thinly.
Lowering the BAC arrest level from .08 to .05, a law recently passed in the state of Utah, is also counterproductive in the fight against drunken driving. It is scientifically proven that having a .05 BAC is less dangerous than talking on a hands-free cellphone or being over the age of 65 while driving. In fact, only one percent of traffic fatalities involve a driver with a BAC between .08 and .05. So when policymakers group these responsible drinkers — who have had little more than a single drink — with problem drinkers, traffic safety resources are wasted focusing on moderate consumers and diverted from legitimately dangerous drunk drivers.
This pattern of using counterproductive, but well-meaning tactics, continues with sobriety checkpoints. Yes, these roadblocks do sometimes catch a drunken driver or two — but not without stopping hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles to do so. The dismal success ratio is not surprising because they are so easily evaded. Not only are the locations widely publicized beforehand through a variety of media outlets — such as newspapers, television stations, and newer platforms like Facebook and Twitter — but they cause huge traffic jams that can be seen from far away. This, along with the flashing lights from police cars, makes it very easy for drivers who have had too much to drink to take an alternate route home.
The use of ineffective tactics by traffic safety officials to combat drunken drivers can be frustrating, but there are solutions. Our states and municipalities already have the necessary resources to confront the problem; they just need to be distributed responsibly. This means focusing resources and personnel on the hardcore drunken drivers who actually kill people, and to actively target them through saturation and roving patrols — not passively wait for them to roll through a stationary checkpoint.
This Labor Day, policymakers and traffic safety officials should re-evaluate which strategies actually lead to reduced traffic fatalities — instead of utilizing the same poorly-targeted and ineffective strategies year after year. By redeploying limited traffic safety resources effectively, hopefully all of us can enjoy a safer Labor Day on the roads.
Jackson Shedelbower is communications director of the American Beverage Institute.