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Transcript: Friday, December 17, 2004, 11 a.m. ET

Impaired Driving

Jeffrey Michael
Impaired Driving Specialist, NHTSA
Friday, December 17, 2004; 11:00 AM

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. This is accomplished by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA also investigates safety defects in motor vehicles, sets and enforces fuel economy standards, helps to reduce the threat of drunk drivers, promotes the use of safety belts, child safety seats and air bags, establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations and provides consumer information on motor vehicle safety topics.

This discussion was about impaired driving.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Jeffrey Michael: Good morning. Thank you for joining us. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about impaired driving as we enter the holidays. This is a particularly risky season for all of us on the road.


Washington, D.C.: Christmas and New Year's are just around the corner. Are these holiday periods very dangerous times to be on the roads?

Jeffrey Michael: Yes. The risk of being involved in a fatal crash is higher during these holiday periods. And there are many more alcohol-related fatalities during these holidays. During most of December, about 30 percent of all traffic deaths involve a driver who has been drinking. But during the Christmas and New Years holidays, alcohol involvement increases to about 45 percent of all fatalities.


Virginia: What if I don't have a designated sober driver and, sometime during the evening, I realize that I've had too much to drink?

Jeffrey Michael: Then, you definitely should not drive. Look for a friend who can drive you home safely, call a cab or spend the night. Plus, there are "safe ride" programs in many communities, including the D.C. area, especially during the holidays. For example, in the Washington area, now through New Year's Day, you can call "SOBERride" at 1-800-200-taxi, between the hours of 8 pm and 4 am. Free rides are available if the fare would have cost $50 or less.


Anonymous: What should I do if I'm hosting a party?

Jeffrey Michael: You should be careful. Most importantly, you want your guests to get home safely, without causing harm to themselves or others. If you are serving alcohol, also offer plenty of food and soft drinks as an alternative. Look for signs of impairment among your guests. If guests seem impaired, make sure they won't be driving. Offer them a ride or even a room to spend the night.


Syracuse, New York: Back in the 40s and for years afterward, my parents' time, people drank a lot more alcohol. Was there a higher rate of alcohol related driving deaths then vs. now? Are there other complicating factors such as the development of lighter/faster cars, highways, longer commutes, less use of public transportation?


Jeffrey Michael: You're right. We've made significant progress over the past several decades. As recently as the early 1980s, it was common to hear someone offer "one for the road." Today, it is less socially unacceptable. In the early 1980s, 60 percent of traffic fatalities were alcohol-related. Today, this percentage has been reduced to 40 percent. Of course, that's still too high.

There are other complications. Cars are faster, people drive more and highways are more congested. On the other hand, cars are also safer and equipped with safety belts and airbags. Safety belt use is one of the best defenses against impaired driving.


Reston, Va.: What other factors are involved besides alcohol in these fatal crashes? We know and understand that contribution to fatalities. But what, if any, other factors can be identified in combination. Say, speeding? Aggressiveness? Visibility? Thanks.

Jeffrey Michael: Many other factors can be involved. Those who drink and drive are also far less likely to wear their safety belts, and to speed. These are really deadly combinations!


Arlington, Va.: Good morning -

In an effort to be a more defensive driver, what can you suggest to help identify drivers who may be impaired? The numbers of drunk drivers continues to be frightening - I'd like to limit my own personal risk as much as possible. Thanks, and have a great - safe - holiday season.

Jeffrey Michael: The single best thing you can do to protect yourself from drunk drivers is to wear your safety belt. Belts reduce the risk of death in a crash - no matter what the cause - by 45 percent.


Washington, D.C.: Hasn't it been shown that the biggest impaired-driving problem group is a cohort of repeat offenders who persist in driving very drunk, despite prior penalties? These people are unlikely to be deterred by the lowering of the legal limit. Wouldn't we be better served by requiring stiffer sentences and jail time for repeat offenders, rather than lowering the limit to crack down on more casual drinkers?

Jeffrey Michael: Actually, most impaired drivers that are killed in crashes are first time offenders.


Ann Arbor, Michigan: Mr. Michael, thank you for taking our comments. Do you know if there are "potentiating" effects of alcohol and anti-depressants? Because I know many, many people who are taking Prozac and so forth, upping the dosage a bit to deal with holiday stress, then having a drink or two.

Jeffrey Michael: You make a very important point. To drive safely, people should make sure they're not impaired by any substance. Impairment can be caused by alcohol or other drugs, including prescriptions or over-the-counter medications. Also, combining drugs and alcohol can have a much greater effect on a person's ability to drive than either one by itself.


Arlington, Va.: Are those index cards allowing you to calculate your BAC based upon weight, number of drinks, and time, accurate? What about the disposable self-testers sold in some stores for measuring BAC?

Jeffrey Michael: You need to be very careful with those devices. Each person responds differently to alcohol. Accordingly, drinking to a limit on an index card can be risky. The other device you mentioned is not scientifically accurate. In either instance, you may actually be impaired even though the device says you are not.


Ft. Washington, Md.: What will happen to someone under age 21 if they're caught driving with alcohol in their system?

Jeffrey Michael: Every state has a law making it illegal for drivers under 21 to have any measurable amount of alcohol in their system. Penalties vary, but usually lead to loss of the drivers' license.


Arlington, Va.: Why is it that families of those students killed in car accidents recently in our area are blaming the law more than the poor choices of their children or the stronger teachings needed in the household. Laws, government and classrooms can only go so far. Where are the lessons in the family?
A concerned teacher!

Jeffrey Michael: Clearly the first line of defense is with the parents. Young drivers need direction and no one is more effective at setting the limits than a mother or father.


Alexandria, Va.: What steps has NHTSA taken to reduce impaired driving?

Jeffrey Michael: NHTSA is promoting high visibility enforcement. We know it works. The purpose is not simply to arrest more people. Rather, it's to convince the public NOT to drive impaired, so officers won't have to arrest them. Here in the Washington region during the holidays, law enforcement from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia all will work together to strengthen enforcement and keep our roads safe. Their operation is called "Checkpoint Strike force." Officers in all area jurisdictions will set up sobriety checkpoints. They'll be out in force - on the lookout for impaired drivers. And when they're caught, there will be serious consequences.


Harrisburg, Penn.: What do you think of the proposal to create a crime of aggravated driving under the influence, where large penalties exist for driving with a 1.5 or more blood alcohol content? Should we be devoting more resources at getting the heavier drinkers into the system earlier?

Jeffrey Michael: Many states have passed laws that deal even more harshly with drivers who are impaired at very high levels. Some of these hard-core offenders have alcohol abuse problems and are very difficult to rehabilitate. On the other hand, about half of impaired drivers in fatal crashes have BAC levels below .15.


Alexandria, Va.: Someone told me that if you talk on your cell phone while you drive you are as impaired as someone who is legally drunk.

Are you familiar with this theory? Also, do drunken people talk on cell phones while they drive? They are certainly not paying attention to the road.

Jeffrey Michael: Any type of distraction can be dangerous, whether talking on a cell phone, eating, or talking to a passenger while driving. It is not really possible to directly compare the risks of distraction compared to that of alcohol impairment.


Bethesda, Maryland: What about adults who are caught driving impaired?

Jeffrey Michael: The consequences vary, depending on the state where the arrest occurs. And the penalties can be stiff. Offenders can face both administrative and criminal sanctions, including jail time, fines, court fees and the suspension of their driver's license. Beyond that, offenders may suffer many other costs, including attorney fees, lost wages and increased insurance payments.


Arlington, Virginia: What is NHTSA's hope for this holiday season?

Jeffrey Michael: Obviously my hope is that we could get through a holiday season without anyone facing the tragedy of an impaired driving death or injury.


Jeffrey Michael: Thank you very much for talking with me today. Please remember that friends don't let friends drive drunk. Drive sober and enjoy your holiday.


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