I was run over by a drunk driver, and almost didn’t survive.
When I was 13, I was on a jet ski on a lake near my home here in Kentucky when a boat driven by a drunken operator going over 60 miles an hour hit me from the side, throwing me off the jet ski. I landed face down in the water, the boat went over the jet ski and landed on top of my body.
The impact broke my neck, collarbone and femurs, shattered my jaw, lacerated my liver, and left me with a severe traumatic brain injury. I was in a coma for a week. When I awoke, I discovered my right leg was severed below the knee.
As devastating as that experience was, I am only one of the approximately 300,000 people injured in a drunk driving crash each year in the U.S. Tragically traffic fatality numbers are rising.
There is a public safety crisis on our roads. Traffic deaths are up for the third consecutive year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) just released an estimate that 9,560 people were killed in traffic crashes in the first quarter of 2022 — a 7% increase over the first quarter of 2021, and the worst first quarter in 20 years — indicating that lives taken by someone’s choice to drive impaired will reach the highest levels in over a decade. It’s even worse in Kentucky, where NHTSA estimates a 27.2% increase in traffic fatalities during that same time period.
The 7% national increase estimate in the first quarter of 2022 is in addition to the estimated 10.5% increase in overall traffic deaths in 2021 compared to 2020.
Those aren’t just statistics. They’re people. They’re family members, friends, loved ones who aren’t coming home. One life lost or person injured would be too many, 9,560 people killed in one quarter is unthinkable.
Hazardous driving behaviors such as speeding, reckless, and impaired driving that got worse during the pandemic are largely to blame for the increases. It’s time to respond with proven-to-work strategies, particularly fair and equitable traffic enforcement aimed directly at stopping hazardous driving.
A May 2022 NHTSA synthesis of studies concluded that high-visibility enforcement efforts targeting alcohol-impaired driving reduced crashes or prohibited behavior in 58% of the 90 study locations. It also noted that: “For preventing alcohol-impaired driving, publicized sobriety checkpoints and high-visibility saturation patrols have demonstrated effectiveness.”
Another successful model is the annual Click It or Ticket program which has used good laws, education and enforcement to achieve a national seat belt use rate of 90%, saving thousands of lives a year.
We need to refocus on programs and activities that worked a decade ago when on average 10,000 fewer lives were lost on U.S. roadways annually.
In parallel, work must continue toward eliminating drunk driving.
Thanks to the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), its allies, and victims and survivors of this crime, courageous bipartisan leaders in Congress included an advanced impaired driving prevention technology mandate in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law last November. It requires new equipment in cars by 2027 that will eventually save more than 9,000 lives a year.
The infrastructure law also provided additional resources to be used nationally and at the state and local level for a Safe Systems approach to safety — part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Roadway Safety Strategy — that includes roadway engineering improvements that over time will complement reemphasis on human behavior changes and safer vehicles to reduce fatalities and injuries.
All these long-term steps are essential, but there’s no time to lose. Fair and equitable enforcement of lifesaving traffic safety laws should be our top priority.
Alex Otte is the National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).