September 8, 2006

Focus on hard-core drinking drivers too narrow, IIHS says

Arlington, Virginia – The focus on hard-core drinkers who drive while impaired is too focused, according to a new report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The report says that the focus overlooks other drivers who escape the definition of ‘hard core’.

“We’ve all seen headlines about crashes of impaired drivers with multiple prior offenses,” says IIHS vice-president Anne McCartt, author of the new report. “These are problem drivers, but they”re a smaller part of a bigger problem. Focusing on them ignores the more numerous impaired drivers who have never been arrested.”

‘Hard core’ is usually defined as drivers with more than one traffic offense involving alcohol, or drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of 0.15 per cent or more. “Chronic offenders fit an intuitive idea of what the hard core is, but these drivers don’t account for many crashes,” McCartt says.

According to the study, the narrow focus is the result of trends in efforts to revive the progress that was made during the 1980s and 1990s. In many countries, including the U.S., sharp declines in crash deaths involving alcohol-impaired drivers began to be recorded in the early 1980s and continued into the 1990s. The progress was widely attributed to effective laws, heightened enforcement and increased public awareness. But progress stalled, and the ensuing search for new ways to reduce impaired driving led policymakers to focus on the hard core. Under the 1998 Transportation Equity Act, the federal government withheld highway construction funds from states that did not enact provisions to impound the vehicles of second DWI (driving while impaired) offenders or make them use ignition interlocks, while license suspensions and jail terms were lengthened.

“The problem is targeting these drivers at the expense of programs aimed at other drivers with BACs high enough to elevate a crash risk,” McCartt says. “Why let them off the hook? Why exclude any driver with a BAC high enough to impair driving? Target them all. It’s a matter of the probabilities. An estimated 90 million vehicle trips per year involve alcohol-impaired drivers, but only about 1.5 million of these end in driver arrest.”

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