Healthy Highways

Healthy Highways

By Lt. Col. John LeBlanc
Executive Director, Louisiana Highway Safety Commission

Imagine the public and official outcry that would result if twice a month during 2014 a jumbo jet crashed in the United States killing 400 people aboard. Were that highly unlikely scenario ever to occur, the total annual death toll would still be lower than that of the number of people killed each year in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S.

In 2012, 10,322 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for 31 percent of the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the United States. In Louisiana, the situation is even more dire: 41 percent of the 722 people killed on our highways in 2012 were involved in alcohol-related crashes. As bad as our 2012 Louisiana DWI statistics appear to be, they are an improvement over 2009 when 46 percent of highway deaths involved alcohol.

Many Louisiana people are apparently well aware of drunk driving as a special problem in our state. In a 2013 public opinion survey conducted for the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, 40 percent of those polled said they think drunk driving is more of a problem in Louisiana than in other states, while only 6 percent believed it to be less of a problem. About half of those polled believe the problem in Louisiana is about the same as in other states.

Unfortunately, driving while intoxicated has been a societal problem for so long, it seems that some have accepted it as the norm.

A variety of factors can contribute to the level of alcohol-related crashes in a community or state. One of these is the general public’s attitudes toward excessive alcohol consumption and of getting behind the wheel after having had too much to drink. Our statistics show that alcohol-involved fatal crashes are considerably lower in some areas of North Louisiana than in southern parts of the state. For example, only 21 percent of fatal crashes in the Shreveport area were alcohol-related in 2012. Compare that to our statewide average of 41 percent. Could it be that the well-known conservative attitude toward alcohol consumption among many North Louisiana residents accounts at least for part of the reason they have fewer impaired drivers on the road?

What this indicates is that alcohol-related crash deaths could be reduced if attitudes changed. The Louisiana Highway Safety Commission works to save lives through a variety of programs, many of them focused on increased enforcement and public information. We can try to educate the motoring public regarding the risks of DWI, not using seat belts and distracted driving, but there are limitations on what can be done to force people to change their attitudes.

Improving driving behavior is a task that each individual has to accomplish on his or her own. However, parents have strong influence over their children and many people react favorably to positive behavior by their peers. If you make it clear to your children and friends that driving while intoxicated is an unacceptable behavior, then that attitude could have a positive impact on them.

In 2012, about six people per week died in Louisiana as a result of an alcohol-related traffic crash. Those people are more than statistics—they were husbands, wives, sons, daughters, parents and many other things to their families and friends. It is within us to turn this around and save lives. Don’t ever drive while intoxicated, and influence all those you know to do the same.