Column: Focus on rising highway death toll

Colleen Sheehey-Church

Recently, I had the honor and privilege of recognizing the outstanding work of law enforcement officers in Michigan who are on the front lines in the battle against drunken driving. As National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), it was my mission to thank the officers and encourage them because the carnage on our roads continues.

Little did I know then that we would soon receive the disheartening news that drunken driving deaths have increased yet again. When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the 2016 traffic fatalities on Oct. 6, we learned that drunken driving and overall traffic fatalities had increased for the second straight year. The dramatic increase indicates a public health crisis on our nation’s roadways.

In 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic crashes. This is an increase of 5.6 percent. In 2015, 35,485 people died in motor vehicle crashes, which at the time represented an 8.4 percent increase in fatalities. If you drive a car, ride a bus or a bike, or simply walk across the street, you should be concerned.

For many years, traffic deaths trended downward. Recent headlines would suggest new and emerging issues as the biggest contributors to traffic deaths. The truth is that the same stubborn causes of traffic deaths continue to claim a majority of lives. Drunken driving, speeding, and unbelted passengers continue to be the leading causes of death on the roads. While drunken driving deaths have been cut in half since Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980, 10,497 people were killed by a drunken driver in 2016. Some believe that drunken driving has been solved, but we clearly have more work to do to stop this 100 percent preventable crime.

Following the release of the 2016 fatality numbers, MADD sent letters to the House and Senate Committees with jurisdiction over highway safety. We are asking Congress to hold hearings to look for real, proven solutions, including immediate, short-term and long-term, to stop the disturbing, deadly trend on our roads.

Two issues in particular have received a significant amount of Congressional attention. Automotive recalls have dominated the news in recent years. But when you look at the numbers, 94 percent of all traffic deaths occur due to driver error or behavior. Clearly, we must look beyond just the automobile.

In addition, autonomous vehicles are making headlines as the next frontier — not only in transportation safety, but in mobility, accessibility and efficiency. MADD fully believes that autonomous vehicles hold tremendous promise to reduce or eliminate human error behind the wheel. We also know that this technology is many years away from deployment. It will also take time for the nation’s fleet to turn over. That’s why it’s critical that we focus not only on the long-term, but short-term solutions that can be implemented now to solve this crisis.

MADD represents the victims of drunken and drugged driving deaths. We are committed to finding solutions to these problems for today and tomorrow. Our Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving is focused on near-term solutions, like high-visibility law enforcement campaigns and ignition interlocks for all offenders, and long-term solutions, such as autonomous vehicles and other advanced technology safety features which will eliminate driver error

Highway fatalities and crashes affect us all. Even those who are not affected directly suffer the consequences through increased insurance costs, lost time, medical expenses and court expenses. Estimates are that drunken driving alone costs $132 billion each year. The increases in traffic deaths over the last two years should concern us all. Congress should immediately hold hearings to try and encourage solutions to this public health crisis. It’s time to get back to basics and focus on the biggest safety problems on our roads once again.

Colleen Sheehey-Church is president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Her son, Dustin Church, was killed by a drunk driver in 2004.