Politicians have been known to introduce bills to make people feel safe, but that doesn’t really address the core problem.
That’s not what’s going on regarding traffic safety measures being introduced this state legislative session, a traffic expert said. Doug Dahl with the state Traffic Safety Commission said statistics show that many of these reforms have been needed for a long time.
He mentioned dropping the Blood Alcohol Concentration level for impaired driving from .08 to .05; requiring 18- to 25-year-olds who did not take driver’s education when they were 16-17 to do so; and having those age 70 and older to have licenses for shorter periods of time and to be tested periodically to make sure they still have the knowledge and skills to safely drive.
So, would dropping the BAC level that amount really save lives? Statistics show that of the state’s 2,877 traffic deaths from 2017-21, 32 percent involved alcohol, including 48, or 15 percent, with BAC levels below 08.
The last time Washington changed its BAC law from .10 to .08 in 1999, fatal crashes declined 38 percent.
Dahl said science has shown that even a BAC of .02 can affect people’s driving. Someone with a BAC of from .05 to .08 is seven times more likely to be in a fatal crash than someone who hasn’t been drinking.
He said Utah is one state with a BAC law of .05. In effect since 2017, it has seen a 20 percent drop in fatalities. Ironically, there has not been an increase in Driving Under the Influence arrests, as the public has been self-enforcing, he said.
Impaired driving isn’t just about alcohol anymore. With marijuana being legal now and law enforcement not allowed to make hard drugs a priority, those also play a role. “Cannibas is a huge factor in impaired driving for sure,” Dahl said, adding prior to legalization traffic deaths in that category numbered about 50, and now it’s over 100. “The war on drugs hasn’t worked. We should do something else.”
One problem still not in a bill yet is in regard to repeat DUI offenders, who are “the worst part of impaired driving.” To crack down on them, Dahl said there’s discussion for the law to go back 15 years rather than 10 to try to stop more of them from reoffending.
COVID also has been an issue. When the pandemic hit, traffic experts expected fatalities to drop like when the market tanked in 2008 since fewer people were going to work. “But that didn’t happen,” Dahl said. “A lot of studies for a long time” will be done on that.
Dahl said the one group that usually pushes back when efforts like this are underway is the hospitality industry. It fears consumption of alcohol would drop, hurting its businesses. However, Dahl said those fears are “unwarranted.” As an example, he said in Europe the BAC level has been .05 for a long time, but people there drink more than those in the states. “They just don’t drive after,” he said.
Many students take driver’s education in high school when they are ages 16-17. But as that cost has climbed over the years the percentage of youth taking it has dropped. That means more 18- to 25-year-olds are driving without any training. They were able to pass the written and driving tests, however, and are on the road. “We want them all to take driver’s ed,” Dahl said.
He said in the past two years those 16-17 have been involved in 26 fatal wrecks, while those 18-20 have been in 174. “That’s a problem,” Dahl said.
Dahl said it’s become too easy for people to renew their license — even doing it online. “We need a system where they go in and get their vision tested or some sort of review,” Dahl said.
Dahl said dealing with older drivers is “tricky.” He said many family members might want to get them off the road, but don’t know how to go about it. A law requiring periodic testing could help them with that struggle. “Mom or dad — look the test showed you should not be driving,” Dahl said.
He said for the most part older people are good drivers. “They have a wealth of wisdom and don’t drive in high-risk situations, such as at night” or on the freeway, he said. However, because they are older their bodies are more fragile, and therefore are more likely to die in a lower-speed crash than someone in their 30s, he said.
The number of pedestrians killed by drivers has skyrocketed the past few years, going from 67 in 2012 to 145 in 2021.
While many are the fault of the person on foot, “Pedestrians don’t kill people,” Dahl said. “We have a philosophy in traffic safety that whoever has the most speed and the most power had the most responsibility.”
He said in a number of cases the pedestrians are actually the ones impaired. “They’re less likely to look for traffic,” Dahl said.
However, even if people behind the wheel are right they still feel horrible if a tragedy occurs. “They have to live with that,” Dahl said.
He said in the old days people who drank too much were advised to walk it off on the way home. “We don’t really encourage that anymore” due to the dangers of impaired walking, he said. “Better to call a cab or a friend.”
He said it’s normal for people to look out for cars while driving because our brains work that way. “But we forget to watch for people sometimes. They can come out from unexpected areas,” he said.
Dahl said right of way is important for traffic safety, but it’s even more important to watch out for the other guy. Pedestrians can be distracted by music in their ears or by looking at their phones. They can have a false sense of security in a crosswalk and be inattentive. “Drivers can save those lives” by being more watchful, he said.
Dahl said poorer people are more often killed as pedestrians because their communities don’t have as many safety features such as sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic lights. They might need to cross a street mid-block, for example, to catch a bus. “There may not be a lot of options there,” he said of potential jaywalkers. “It’s not as clearcut as we may want it to be.”
Dahl said there are no easy answers because there are so many other factors. Mental illness is a growing factor in many traffic fatalities, and since COVID there seems to be more of that. “Texting while driving certainly is still an issue,” he said.
Prosecution of repeat DUI offenders is not tough enough. “There still isn’t a great system to help the addicted,” Dahl said. The need for more police officers is evident as speeding and reckless driving are more common.
“Some things aren’t working the way they should,” he said. “But one piece of the puzzle is lowering the BAC. If we do our part maybe some other things will get done.”
By the numbers
The National Transportation Safety Board recommends all 50 states lower their BAC to .05.
Driver impairment is involved in 60 percent of fatal crashes.
Total cost of traffic deaths in Washington state in 2018 was $930 million.
In high-income countries, U.S. fatal crashes are 30 percent higher than the next nation. And its one of only three countries without a .05 limit.
Australia had an 18 percent reduction in fatal crashes after lowering its BAC.
In Utah, which passed the .05 law in 2017: Fatal crashes fell almost 20 percent; Total crashes fell almost 10 percent and injury crashes almost 11 percent. Drivers under the influence dropped almost 15 percent.
Of Washington state’s 2,877 traffic deaths from 2017-21, 32 percent involved alcohol. 326 only had alcohol, including 48, or 15 percent, with BAC levels below .08. 410 were positive for alcohol and another substance, and 78, or 19 percent, had BAC levels below .08. Of 281 drivers who tested positive for pot, 54 percent also had alcohol in their system. Of those under the influence, 40 percent were speeding and one-third didn’t wear seat belts. 27 percent had been in at least one crash before.
Data provided by the Traffic Safety Commission.