Massachusetts Shows Continued Declines in Alcohol Related Fatalities

2013 NHTSA Report: Massachusetts Shows Continued Declines in Alcohol Related Fatalities
By Colonel Timothy P. Alben Superintendent, Massachusetts State Police

On any level, it’s difficult to propose a feel‐good story that begins with citing the tragic deaths of over 32,000 people in traffic related events in our country annually. On their face, the data is sterile and unemotional. Unfortunately, traffic fatalities ‐ for those other than loved ones, family or friends ‐ have become an almost accepted consequence of American life. We are dependent on the automobile for work, leisure and daily routine. With that dependence, comes risk and consequences.

The Boston Herald recently published an article titled “OUI Arrests Down as Checkpoints Cut Back” (Friday, January 2, 2015). Just a few days before going to print, the Herald reporter asked our spokesperson, David Procopio, for a quick turnaround on producing operating under the influence (OUI) of alcohol arrest data for 2014. That was followed by a series of questions surrounding what the reporter perceived to be a diminished use of so‐called sobriety checkpoints by the state police in that same 2014 calendar year. In a follow‐up story today (January 12th), the Herald cites a significant number of OUI related arrests in the Lowell area.

While we welcome attention to such an important public safety issue as OUI enforcement, alcohol related traffic deaths and overall highway safety, as often the case the Herald (and others) seem to have missed an opportunity to report on the real story – a decline in highway deaths. In actuality, the commitment of state and local police to take impaired operators off our roads is as strong as ever and the results bear that out when viewed in their totality.

National Decline in Fatal Crashes

Interestingly enough, the Herald article concerning OUI enforcement comes just a month after some relatively good news (not an area of particular interest to the media) concerning national and statewide traffic safety. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHSTA) final report on “2013 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview” (the latest NHTSA report released in December 2014), traffic fatalities across the U.S. have declined by 25% over the last 10 years to 32,719 deaths in 2013. This was a decline of 3.1% from 2012 and the lowest number of traffic related deaths recorded in the last forty years of record keeping by NHTSA. For the sake of perspective, consider for a moment that in the early 1970’s traffic related deaths in the U.S. eclipsed 50,000 people per year.

There are many likely contributors to such a decline. Among the factors to consider are improved automobile safety features like frontal and side airbag systems, better engineered vehicle design to withstand collisions, increased seatbelt compliance and improved child restraint systems, advancements in emergency medicine and emergency medal response, educational and traffic safety awareness. While all compelling, let’s not dismiss enforcement and awareness of alcohol impaired driving laws as a major component of saved lives on our roadways.

Encouraging Data On Alcohol Related Fatalities

According to NHTSA, each year alcohol related traffic deaths consistently make up a third of all traffic related fatalities. In 2013, NHTSA noted a measurable decline in alcohol related driving deaths as well. Nationally, alcohol‐impaired driving fatalities decreased by 2.5 % in 2013 to 10,076. While we look at the data, particularly the reduction in alcohol related deaths as a measurement of an encouraging decline, it’s hardly comforting to the more than 10,000 families in this country who lost a loved one in 2013 in an alcohol related traffic crash. We can do better than that and we remain committed to doing so!

Massachusetts Outdistances National Gains on Fatality Reduction

In our State of Massachusetts, NHTSA reported that the declines in both overall traffic deaths and alcohol related traffic deaths both exceeded the national averages by noteworthy margins.   Between 2012 and 2013, Massachusetts saw a 15% reduction (383 to 326) in overall traffic fatalities and an 8.5% decline (129 to 118) in alcohol related traffic fatalities.     The reductions in both categories is approximately three times the national average of decline. Of the fifty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico ‐ Massachusetts recorded the 6th most significant reduction – of all states ‐ in 2013 alcohol related traffic deaths.

The Enforcement Strategy

The enforcement of Massachusetts Laws related to alcohol intoxicated operation of a motor vehicle has been an ongoing priority of state and local law enforcement for decades. Table 1 illustrates the number of OUI arrests both statewide and those effected by the Massachusetts State Police from 2009 through 2014.

Table 1

Year Total OUI Arrests MSP OUI Arrests
2009 16,575 4,938
2010 15,102 4,763
2011 12,714 3,819
2012 13,914 5,014
2013 12,775 4,281
2014 12,764 4,601

 

The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) continues to assist both state and local police in furthering the anti‐drunken driving program. EOPSS administers grant funding to support a combination of public messaging, alcohol education, saturation patrolling, sobriety checkpoints and making OUI enforcement a part of every police patrol. From the 2013 data, it would seem that the strategy is proving beneficial to citizens of the Commonwealth.

Conclusion

Sobriety checkpoints as a stand‐alone practice could never provide the singular solution to alcohol‐impaired operation, nor result in the encouraging declines we’re witnessing in alcohol related fatalities. Checkpoints require significant numbers of personnel to staff them; they can only be established in a limited number of roadways (not interstates) dictated by certain established criteria; they are vulnerable to social media broadcast and avoidance; and checkpoints are prohibited for reasons of safety in threatening weather such as extreme cold, heavy rain, ice, snow or other potentially hazardous road conditions. Arguably, what threatens the viability of future sobriety checkpoints as a preventative tool is an increasingly serious and well established staffing deficiency within the MSP. As was explained to the Herald in detail, sobriety checkpoints are complemented on many nights with saturation patrols that flood a given area with mobile troopers seeking impaired operators. The department has determined that saturation patrols are also an effective tactic in our drunk‐driving impairment strategy.

The NHTSA annual report on traffic safety is published every year, usually in December. It doesn’t require a freedom of information request; costs nothing to produce; and is available to anyone with an internet connection. The Boston Herald’s focus on a   perceived   reduction   in sobriety checkpoints missed   an important opportunity to share something quite newsworthy and welcome. The report highlights a positive return on an enduring investment in public safety and quality of life in Massachusetts. We can never claim victory while in the same breath acknowledging the preventable and needless loss of life. Continuing this impressive pattern of decline in traffic deaths highlighted in the 2013 NHTSA report will require a continuous, sustained investment and commitment to successful public safety policies. Through alcohol education, public messaging, increased vehicle safety standards and multi‐faceted law enforcement strategies we can do even better and in doing so ‐ save more lives!

For reference, please see the 2013 NHTSA report: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812101.pdf