Drinking and driving: National health problem

Education key to curbing fatalities and injuries

Drunk and drugged driving is one of America’s leading public health problems, says John Moulden, MS, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving in Washington, DC. "The numbers alone make it an immediate public health problem," he says. In 1999, nearly 16,000 people were killed and more than 300,000 injured as a result of alcohol-related accidents. Anyone who rides in a car is at risk of being hit by a drunk driver, too.

During late November and December when people celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, the incidence of drinking and driving goes up, increasing the public’s risk of injury. Therefore, December is a time when communities partner with the Washington DC-based National 3D Prevention Month Coalition in a public awareness campaign to prevent drinking and driving.

Education is a key element of National Drunk and Drugged Driving (3D) Prevention Month. Many responsibility measures, such as designated drivers, are a result of victims advocates groups like Dallas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving who put a face on the problem by telling personal stories. "People realized that drinking and driving wasn’t some social faux pas; it was really a crime, and people were getting killed and injured," says Moulden.

Personal responsibility is very important and it is not just teaching the public not to drink and drive, says Moulden. It’s important that people learn how to protect themselves from a drunk driver. Defensive measures include wearing a safety belt and being sure that children are properly secured in child safety seats. It’s also refusing to ride in a car with someone who has been drinking, but instead opting to call a cab or asking a sober friend for a ride.

To help prevent drunken driving fatalities, people need to learn to be responsible party hosts by having nonalcoholic drinks available and serving food along with alcoholic beverages. It’s also important to take the car keys from guests who have had too much to drink and to refuse to serve alcohol to those who are underage for legal drinking.

While driving, people should not hesitate to call law enforcement from a cellular phone or pay phone if they see someone driving erratically, and they should be prepared to provide the license plate number and a description of the car.

Many estimate the number of alcoholic beverages they can have before they will be over the blood alcohol concentration limit in the state where they are driving, yet impairment begins with one alcoholic drink. Also, it’s difficult to know when a person is past the limit because the rate of alcohol absorption varies according to a person’s height and weight, how much food they have consumed, and their tolerance level for alcohol.

The message the coalition wants to get out is that one drink is too much for anyone who is driving. The reason behind the message is that one drink decreases a person’s ability to quickly react.

A group that composes about half the drinking and driving problem are males ages 21-34 years old, which the coalition has made a target. "One of the reasons they are a target is that they are hard to reach," says Moulden.

However, research has shown that employers, wives, and girlfriends have quite a bit of influence on this group. Therefore, the coalition is trying to convince employers to get the message about drinking and driving across to their employees and to make drunk driving a career-influencing offense. Other difficult groups to reach are the hardcore, repeat offenders and youth who are inexperienced at both driving and alcohol consumption.

Health care professionals interested in putting together an educational program for National 3D Prevention Month can send for a folder that contains suggestions for outreach activities. "It has information on how to have a responsible party, individual responsibility tips, understanding blood alcohol concentration, the relation between alcohol ingestion and drunk driving, and partnership ideas," says Moulden. It also has details on how to find out about programs within the community that keep alcohol-impaired people off the road, such as a free cab ride program.

The theme for this year’s campaign is the current theme of the Washington DC-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — You Drink & Drive, You Lose.

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