Drivers: We are facing a national emergency

Car accident

This Memorial Day kicks off what could be one of the most dangerous summer travel seasons in recent history. The alarming spike in drunk driving deaths and injuries during the pandemic is a wake-up call to every one of us on America’s roads. We have to do better.

During the 2020 Memorial Day period, 41 percent of fatalities involved an alcohol-impaired driver, according to the National Safety Council. And the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows projected 2021 traffic fatalities were 10.5 percent higher than in 2020. The agency said an estimated 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year,10,000 more than in 2011. Impaired driving, speeding and not using seatbelts continue to be contributing factors.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recognized that these numbers demand action. “We face a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address together,” he said. We at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) completely agree.

If you’ve driven on a highway lately, you’ve probably seen what’s happening. People are speeding by, weaving in and out of the lanes as if they’re in a race car video game. If you’ve walked or ridden a bike on an urban street, you may be equally frightened.

It feels like during COVID too many people have forgotten the basic rules of safe driving. Everyone was cooped up through much of the pandemic and was eager to get back behind the wheel. But for too many drivers, enthusiasm has turned into recklessness.

Solving this crisis on our roads will require every tool and strategy that federal, state and local agencies can throw at each element of the problem. But solving this is also on us, too — you and me.

Our free society requires each of us to think. We have to think about the consequences of each choice we make. We have to think about the privilege of having a driver’s license and the responsibilities that go with it. We owe it to one another to make better choices while driving.

Every one of those 42,915 people killed on our roads last year thought they would be coming home. They thought they’d reach their destination and go to work, or get up the next morning and hug their loved ones. They walked out of their door not realizing it was their last day or night on this earth.

As MADD national president, I can give you three policy recommendations we believe will help:

●      NHTSA must strictly adhere to the regulatory timetable called for under the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act to ensure that new cars equipped with the state-of-the-art, lifesaving technology will start rolling off the assembly line as soon as 2026 and no later than 2027

●      Our courts should prioritize fair and equitable treatment of DUI offenders, and state and local governments should give law enforcement the resources to meet this growing traffic safety challenge.

●      Secretary Buttigieg should convene a national Call to Action meeting within 30 days to identify solutions, including the Roadway Safety Strategy, to what NHTSA Administrator Dr. Steven Cliff called an “urgent and preventable” crisis on our roads. The public and private sectors, including the auto and insurance industries, should be included and realistic goals should be set for reversing the trend of increased fatalities.

My stomach turns every time I hear about drunk drivers getting off with short sentences after they’ve killed someone or caused horrific life-changing injuries. It’s unacceptable when repeat offenders are allowed to return to driving with just a wrist slap or when comedians make jokes on TV about their own DUIs.

Every day, I’m reminded of the price so many of us pay for someone’s bad choice to get behind the wheel while impaired. When I hear a siren or see an ambulance responding to a crash, I know that the lives of all involved will never be the same.

Thanks to bipartisan language in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in November, advanced vehicle technology is coming to all new cars in a few years that will reduce or even eliminate certain safety threats. Until then, we all have to do better and have each other’s backs while we’re traveling on our streets and highways. This crisis is real and must be addressed immediately. Thousands of lives are at stake. 

Alex Otte is national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Tags auto safety COVID-19 drunk driving Pete Buttigieg rise in auto accidents

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