“One for the road” – Alcohol Impairment

NOTE: This article is part of a series investigating the definition of “impaired driving” as it occurs in society, traffic safety and driver safety professional networks.

Of the most common ways a driver can impair their own ability to drive is to choose to consume alcohol before getting behind the wheel.  In fact, this is a world-wide phenomenon.  According to the Global Road Safety Partnership (Link),

“In high-income countries about 20% of fatally injured drivers have excess alcohol in their blood, while in some low- and middle-income countries these figures may be up to 69%.” (from “Drinking and Driving: an international good practice manual”)

Here in the USA, we have an annual fatality rate of roughly 32% from drinking and driving.  Granted this is much improved since the 1970’s when it was as high as 50% (and even 40% as recently as 2003 per National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – NHTSA) These reductions were due largely to:

  • Changes in laws
  • Aggressive enforcement
  • Community involvement
  • Public awareness
  • Educational programs targeting the youth of our country

Unfortunately, as a nation, we seem to have hit a plateau over the past decade where further declines have been halted.

It’s a sobering reality to contemplate that we continue to record an alcohol fueled traffic fatality every 51 minutes despite our best efforts to curb these behaviors.

Patterns of Deep Seated Behavior?

In reviewing recent research and statistics on alcohol and driving, we find that out of 1.5 million arrests of impaired drivers each year, about a full third are repeat offenders.  Additionally, the Insurance Information Institute issued an update in September showing that first-time offenders are very likely to have driven drunk before their first arrest.  Further, studies suggest that on average, one arrest is made for every 88 instances of driving over the legal limit; therefore we have to wonder if the average first-timer has driven drunk 80+ times before getting caught. (Link to source)

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) reminds us that while alcohol related crashes happen at all hours, they peak at night and are more common on weekends than on weekdays.  This suggests a link between parties and crashing on the way home, but it’s not the whole picture.  Alcohol still plays a role at all other times on the calendar and clock.

When we combine the fact that most “drunk drivers” have a pattern of drinking and driving, and that while most crash on weekends, the choice to get behind the wheel while buzzed is primarily a judgment call, not one of convenience, conscience or mere location (i.e. the behavior of the weekend partier carries that judgment to the business vehicle during the week even if the alcohol is left behind).

Latest Trending – Binge Drinking

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that most alcohol-impaired drivers binge drink.  Binge drinking is a behavior where large quantities of alcohol are consumed in a short period of time with the purpose of becoming drunk as quickly as possible.

CDC further indicates that most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics in general.  They may be ordinary people who want to escape their normal routine, “have fun” or simply “get blitzed.”  Consider the following statistics from a January 2012 report:

  • More than half of the alcohol adults drink is consumed while binge drinking.
  • Age group with most binge drinkers: 18-34 years
  • Age group that binge drinks most often: 65+ years
  • Income group with most binge drinkers: more than $75,000
  • Income group that binge drinks the most often and drinks most per binge: less than $25,000

Binge drinking may be a sign that:  the person is unable to cope with other stressors in their life, it could affect more than just driving (i.e. job performance, workers comp injuries, customer complaints, etc.).  All in all, this may also signal a need for the employee to take advantage of an Employee Assistance Program if one is available to them.

Wrong Way Crashes and Links to Alcohol Impairment

On December 11, 2012, an Associated Press article was released which stated:

“Hundreds of people are killed each a year when drivers turn the wrong-way into the face of oncoming traffic on high-speed highways, and a majority of the crashes involves drivers with blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit, a federal accident researcher said Tuesday.

“The board’s study analyzed data from 1,566 crashes from 2004 to 2009, as well as nine wrong way collisions NTSB directly investigated. In 59 percent of the accidents, wrong-way drivers had blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit, researchers said. In another 10 percent of the crashes, drivers had alcohol levels between .08 and .14. The limit in most instances is .08.”

“Often the chain of events begins with drivers entering an exit ramp in the wrong direction, making a U-turn on the mainline of a highway or using an emergency turnaround through a median, investigators said.”

“To address the problem, the board is considering recommending all states require convicted first-time drunken-driving offenders use ignition interlock devices that test their breath for alcohol concentration in order to drive. The devices, mounted on the vehicle’s dashboard, prevent the engine from starting if the driver’s alcohol concentration is too high. Seventeen states already have such a requirement.”

Legal “Profiling”

In California, driver abstracts (aka motor vehicle reports or driver violation histories) that get issued to insurers automatically include any Driving Under the Influence (DUI) violations from the past ten years.  This was done to ensure that a past recipient of a DUI conviction would not qualify for a “good driver discount.”  Even though other types of violations can “fall off” or be “grandfathered”, DUIs are a much more indelible mark on a driver’s record.

From an employer’s perspective, there is a risk in voluntarily handing keys to a driver who has previously been convicted because of “negligent supervision”, “negligent entrustment” and similar legal theories.  Of course, employers might provide keys to company equipment if required by court order, if an “interlock ignition” system is installed or if any license restrictions allow commuting to the worksite (and don’t require the transport of passengers or other riders).

Commercial Drivers and Alcohol

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has published regulations affecting drivers who hold a Commercial Drivers License (CDL).  Initially, a substance abuse testing program was launched in 1989 to cover certain controlled substances, but expanded in 1994 to include alcohol testing requirements.

The testing, along with enforcement initiatives and educational factors have made an impact.  In 1990, 2.8% of all drivers of heavy trucks who died in crashes had a BAC of 0.08 or greater.  By 2010, that percentage had dropped to 1.8%.  This compares favorably to drivers of passenger cars:  1990 = 28.9% and 2010 = 23.2% (these percentages are also similar to drivers of light-duty trucks).  This information is from the “Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2010” (FMCSA-RRA-12-023, August 2012)

Here are some highlights from the FMCSA’s own website:  http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/topics/drug/engtesting.htm

  1. Who do these rules apply to (besides CDL holders, specifically)?
    1. Examples of drivers and employers that are subject to these rules are (the following does not represent a complete listing):
      1. Anyone who owns or leases commercial motor vehicles
      2. Anyone who assigns drivers to operate commercial motor vehicles
      3. Federal, State, and local governments
      4. For-Hire Motor Carriers
      5. Private Motor Carriers
      6. Civic Organizations (Disabled Veteran Transport, Boy/Girl Scouts, etc.)
      7. Churches
  2. WHAT ALCOHOL USE IS PROHIBITED?
    1. Alcohol is a legal substance; therefore, the rules define specific prohibited alcohol-related conduct. Performance of safety-sensitive functions is prohibited:
      1. While using alcohol.
      2. While having a breath alcohol concentration of 0.04 percent or greater as indicated by an alcohol breath test.
      3. Within four hours after using alcohol.
    2. In addition, refusing to submit to an alcohol test or using alcohol within eight hours after an accident or until tested (for drivers required to be tested) are prohibited.
  3. WHAT ALCOHOL TESTS ARE REQUIRED?
    1. The following alcohol tests are required:
      1. Post-accident – conducted after accidents on drivers whose performance could have contributed to the accident (as determined by a citation for a moving traffic violation) and for all fatal accidents even if the driver is not cited for a moving traffic violation.
      2. Reasonable suspicion – conducted when a trained supervisor or company official observes behavior or appearance that is characteristic of alcohol misuse.
      3. Random – conducted on a random unannounced basis just before, during, or just after performance of safety-sensitive functions.
      4. Return-to-duty and follow-up – conducted when an individual who has violated the prohibited alcohol conduct standards returns to performing safety-sensitive duties. Follow-up tests are unannounced. At least 6 tests must be conducted in the first 12 months after a driver returns to duty. Follow-up testing may be extended for up to 60 months following return to duty.

SUMMARY

The problem of drinking and driving is a significant contributor to road deaths despite improving results over the past four decades.  While we never make light of the emerging threat of electronic distractions, there remains a significant difference between these two conditions:

  • Distracted drivers can drive well, but choose to ignore their duty
  • Alcohol-impaired drivers can’t drive well because they’re physically or “medically” unfit for the duty, but choose to drive anyway

In reality, neither should get behind the wheel if they’re going to impair themselves, and yet both boldly choose to endanger themselves and other drivers despite the warnings and pleadings of safety professionals and the public at large.

As a nation, we’ve called for a complete ban on hand-held cell conversations and texting-while-driving, but it feels like we haven’t (recently or as loudly) called for true zero-tolerance of drinking and driving with the same fervor.  

As an employer, consider a timely review of your policies covering drinking and driving. Perhaps its time to remind your employees of your expectations — after all, you’re also expressing genuine concern for their wellness and safety by curbing the notion that buzzed driving is somehow OK — it isn’t.

Within your own family, talk with teens and seniors, moms and dads — everyone who drives should be reminded that the choices we make have direct and significant consequences.  Calling a cab (or mom and dad) for a ride is a far better choice than hoping for the best, or feeling lucky.

Join the conversation at our Linked In discussion site or our facebook page.

SafetyFirst provides automated MVR checking/ranking services, fleet policy consulting, access to tailored telematics that actually “fit” your company and it’s unique needs.  Validated best in class for reducing collision claims among insurance carriers and world-class safety organizations in every SIC division.
 
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