Experts say preventing impaired driving ‘a community effort,’ holidays bring extra risk

Local News

via Responsibility.Org Facebook

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – With the holiday season already the time of year with the most accidents behind the wheel, according to AAA Texas, Responsibility.Org said it is also the season for open conversations and joint efforts to prevent impaired driving.

As part of the organization’s efforts to raise awareness over the holidays, Responsibility.Org and Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) President and CEO Chris Swonger spoke with MyHighPlains.com about a few of its ongoing initiatives, and general tips for celebrating safely.

The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, also known as Responsibility.Org, has described itself as an organization focused on working with member companies, partners, teachers, and families to create and spread programs intended to educate about and fight against impaired driving and underage drinking.

“The country’s come a long way in the last 30 years with respect to eliminating drunk driving and underage drinking,” noted the organization’s website, “and there’s more work to be done.”

Swonger expressed a similar sentiment during his conversation with MyHighPlains.com, and said that while there has been an overall decline in drunk driving over the last 25-30 years, “troubling numbers” from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed a significant uptick in vehicle-related fatalities.

Among the collected NHTSA data were illustrations of an increase in “risky behaviors” such as a lack of seatbelt-wearing from 2019 to 2020, shown using motor vehicle ejections “because people using seat belts are less likely to be ejected from a vehicle.”

“During the early months of the national public health emergency, driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly (Wagner et al., 2020). Of the drivers who remained on the roads, some engaged in riskier behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs,” said the NHTSA report on traffic safety during COVID-19, “Traffic data indicated average speeds increased during the second quarter, and extreme speeds became more common. Other data suggested fewer people involved in crashes used their seat belts.”

The increase of drivers traveling under the influence of alcohol or other drugs was Swonger’s focus. He noted that while a general decrease over the years has been seen in drunk driving, “impaired driving” has been on the rise – that phrase, he explained, meaning a driver has been impacted by a mixture of alcohol and another drug such as cannabis.

With “engagement-oriented, individual-oriented” education in mind, Swonger explained Responsibility.Org initiatives such as The National Alliance to Stop Impaired Driving (NASID) and the Wrong Side of the Road program.

NASID, said Swonger, has focused on data collection and system reform as methods to fight impaired driving. While a combination of alcohol and other drugs creates a “potent” recipe for greater impairment, more data is needed for the causes and impacts of “polysubstance abuse.” Pursuing that data, Swonger said that his organization has lobbied states and the federal government to expand the use of car companies and smart technology for data collection and day-to-day regulation for drivers.

For example, Swonger noted that Responsibility.Org worked with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to bring additions into the recently-passed bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package. Swonger and his organization said that the package involved provisions aimed to address impaired driving, such as:

  • Advancing impaired driving prevention technology
  • Expanding state efforts to address multiple-substance impaired driving using “innovative programs and technology”
  • Language to expand the number of states that qualify for incentive grant funding with the passage of “effective ignition interlock laws”
    • Swonger explained that an ignition interlock device (IID) is a type of breathalyzer device installed into a vehicle that can prevent it from starting if a certain breath alcohol content level is passed. Swonger noted that these devices can be especially effective in preventing repeat offenses.
  • A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study to improve national reporting of impaired driving arrest and citation data
  • Expanding states efforts to collect data on crash information, including electronic crash reporting systems “that allow accurate real or near-real-time” access
  • Public education efforts on cannabis-impaired driving prevention
  • Expanding data collection efforts for drug testing among impaired drivers
  • Expanding research on cannabis-impaired driving

Aside from legislation-focused initiatives like the NASID, Swonger also spoke on programs such as Wrong Side of the Road. As a website focused on engagement with individuals and spreading awareness about the consequences of driving under the influence, Wrong Side of the Road is presented as an experience that includes a quiz and simulated conversations with people who have driven while impaired.

Swonger noted that the target audience for the program is broad but somewhat more focused on those between the ages of 21 and 29. While Wrong Side of the Road has not been officially a part of drivers’ education, Swonger said that distributing the experience through social media has been an effective strategy for reaching the target audience.

Altogether, Swonger said the primary goal of Responsibility.Org and its educational programs is to promote general awareness of the dangers of impaired driving and provide information and resources in order to help its prevention be an ongoing conversation. The fight against it, after all, is “a community effort.”

A few day-to-day points that people can keep in mind during the holiday season, said Swonger, in order to prevent tragedy caused by impaired driving include;

  • Remembering that “alcohol is alcohol” – Swonger reminded that diluted or decorated cocktails that can be found at many holiday celebrations still include alcohol, even without a strong taste. Taking into account a person’s individual aspects such as metabolism and weight and their water and food intake can help them be more aware of how they may be impacted by alcohol consumption.
  • Making a plan – Swonger advised that when holiday festivities are around the corner, individuals and families should make plans regarding when, where, and how alcohol might be consumed. Deciding who will be a designated driver, or which ride-service app will be used, and from which location are important steps to take before people find themselves in a situation in which there is a risk of driving while impaired.

For the latest traffic conditions, holiday celebrations, and local news, check with MyHighPlains.com.

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