What we can do about the rise in alcohol-impaired driving

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In 1988, Larry Mahoney drove his pickup truck down the wrong side of Kentucky’s I-71, hitting a church bus head on and killing 24 children and three adults. The incident, which became known as the Carrollton Bus Crash, remains the deadliest impaired-driving incident in American history. The crash received national media attention and resulted in a crackdown on impaired driving. Between 1982 and 2014, the number of annual alcohol-impaired driving fatalities decreased by 51 percent. But after nearly three decades in decline, the numbers are starting to rise.

A new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2016, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities increased for the second year in a row to 10,497 — the highest level since 2009. While the opioid epidemic has rightly received significant attention of late, impaired driving remains one of the single most serious threats to public safety — and it’s one that is entirely preventable. Progress has been made, but the rising number of fatalities shows more must be done.

December marks Impaired Driving Prevention Month, and there is no better time to explore solutions to this public safety issue. The National Center for DWI Courts (NCDC) and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR) recently embarked on a nationwide Reform & Responsibility Tour to promote ways to immediately reduce impaired driving deaths. Here is what we recommend:

1. Screen and assess all driving while intoxicated (DWI) offenders.

More robust clinical screening and assessment for DWI offenders allows them to be matched to the appropriate level of supervision and treatment, and research shows that the earlier this occurs, the greater the likelihood of success.

For the majority, a DWI arrest is a huge wakeup call: many need only one arrest to never re-offend. They can change their behavior and do so out of fear of being rearrested. But others are not capable of changing without outside intervention. According to FAAR, repeat DWI offenders commonly suffer from mental health and substance use disorders. Left untreated, repeat offenders are statistically the most dangerous drivers on the road and over-represented in fatal crashes. Better screening and assessment can identify drivers likely to become repeat offenders and ensure they receive more supervision, stricter accountability and evidence-based treatment.

2. Expand and improve DWI courts.

For over two decades, drug treatment courts in the U.S. have proven that a combination of accountability and treatment can lead people into recovery, reduce crime, and save resources. DWI courts build on the success of the drug treatment court movement by focusing on repeat and/or high blood alcohol content (BAC) DWI offenders with substance use disorders. DWI court participants are under strict supervision: they have mandated home visits, continuous alcohol monitoring, and frequent appearances in court. They undergo rigorous, evidence-based individual treatment and participate in group therapy. They must pass frequent and random drug tests. In addition to all of this, they’re required to hold down a job, perform community service, or advance their education.

Research on this combination of accountability and treatment shows that DWI courts are the most successful way to reduce impaired driving, decreasing recidivism by as much as 60 percent, all while saving taxpayers money: an incredible $3.19 is saved by society, for every $1 invested in a DWI court. Learn more at DWIcourts.org.

3. Increase evidence-based supervision technology.

Used in conjunction with clinical assessment and appropriate treatment interventions that target individual needs, technology can play a vital role in getting DWI offenders the supervision and support they need. For example, many states have adopted ignition interlock programs for repeat offenders. Ignition interlock requires offenders to pass a breath test before their car will start and has been found to reduce repeat impaired driving by about two-thirds. Continuous alcohol monitoring (CAM) technology is another effective tool for ensuring compliance with supervision requirements: it relays real-time alcohol consumption data to law enforcement. Research has found that the use of CAM improves enforcement of abstinence orders and is more effective than random drug testing.

Unfortunately, despite the passage of legislation supporting the use of such technologies, they remain underutilized by local communities in their efforts to reduce impaired driving.

Larry Mahoney was not a first-time offender on the night he took 27 lives. Several years before the crash, he was arrested and charged with a DWI. If we knew then what we know now, would the Carrollton bus tragedy have been avoided? We may never know the answer to that question, but we do know that we must do everything we can to prevent another tragedy like it. There is an urgent need to robustly implement and strengthen solutions that will protect public safety and save resources while holding impaired drivers accountable and getting them the evidence-based treatment they need to achieve long-term recovery.

We’ve made tremendous progress on this issue since the 1980s, but we must act if we are to reverse this dangerous upward trend, and we must act now. Lives are at stake.

James Eberspacher is division director of the National Center for DWI Courts.

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