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Berman in the Washington Times: Drowsy Driving - The Other Hazard

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Focusing only on alcohol leaves the public vulnerable to other road threats

By Richard Berman - - Monday, December 19, 2016

Why do we treat the driver who drank a glass of wine with dinner differently than the driver who just left the late movie after a long day of work? Driving after a single drink has come to be regarded as a moral failure. Yet new research suggests drowsy driving is more dangerous.

New data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows drivers who have gotten only five hours of sleep crash just as frequently as a legally drunk driver. Although it may not seem as though a sleepless or restless night could severely endanger one’s health, drowsy driving is responsible for more than 70,000 injuries each year.

You need not fall asleep at the wheel to create a hazard (although one in 10 Americans admit to having dozed off while driving in the past year). Getting just one less hour of shut-eye than usual impairs a driver enough to affect reaction time and decision-making processes. With the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimating 35 percent of American adults don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep, that translates to tens of millions of sleep-impaired drivers on the road.

AAA reports up to one in five fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver.

The public should be up in arms demanding state and federal dollars be dedicated to eliminating such a pervasive threat from our roadways. Yet only New Jersey has legislation on the books specifically allowing law enforcement to penalize drowsy drivers before they’re involved in a crash.

Instead, advocacy groups have successfully promoted the stigma against driving after a single drink without regard to other statistically equal risks. Accordingly, you can happily contribute to Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s $35 million bank account while ignoring other real risks to highway safety. That includes cell phones, texting and GPS navigation screens as well as driving after a late-night movie.

In reality, drunken driving isn’t the threat it used to be. Despite every state having expanded its definition of what constitutes a “drunk” driver, drunken driving fatalities have plummeted 48 percent since the 1980s.

A full 70 percent of those drunken driving fatalities are committed by hard core drunks whose blood alcohol content (BAC) is roughly twice the legal limit or higher. And much of that foolish risk is borne by the driver who is the one most often killed in single car crashes. These aren’t your average adults having a glass of wine with dinner. At twice the legal limit, the driver would exhibit severe motor impairment, blurred vision and lack of balance. Yet activist groups and legal systems want to treat them the same as someone one sip over the limit.

Some even advocate lowering that limit — a move that would disproportionately affect millions of law-abiding people. Even drinking two glasses of wine would not raise the average American woman’s BAC enough to impair her as much as texting does. And if we’re discussing specific risk, drowsy drivers are actually estimated to kill more people than those who drive after a drink or two.

Yet with a lower legal limit, our archetypal drinker would face jail time, increased insurance rates, heavy fines and mandatory installation of an in-car breathalyzer for a decision less dangerous than glancing at her phone or driving on limited sleep.

Rather than supporting methods that will get the worst offenders off our streets — be they drunk, drowsy, distracted or drugged — safety stakeholders have allowed anti-alcohol messaging to blind them to today’s worst threats. They continue to define drunken driving down in an age when the rates of other dangerous behaviors are going up.

Highway fatalities caused by “human choice,” a category which includes such factors as distraction and drowsiness, increased by more than 7 percent last year. And as more states legalize marijuana, drugged driving rates are skyrocketing. The percentage of traffic deaths where at least one driver tested positive for drugs has nearly doubled over the last decade.

As a nation we must question the efficacy of focusing on drunk drivers as the seemingly sole problem on America’s roadways. But until law enforcement and lawmakers take issues like fatigue and distraction seriously, their fixation on “the alcohol problem” leaves the public vulnerable to a number of other growing threats.

If we want to make a real impact on the number of lives saved, new problems shouldn’t be addressed by doubling down on old solutions. Economist John Maynard Keynes reportedly (and famously) said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” It’s an observation so basic but so often ignored.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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