Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao For NHTSA Drug Impaired Driving Public Meeting

September 17, 2018

Thank you, Heidi.


Before I begin, I want to mention the hurricanes which have threatened and caused so much harm in areas of our country. Let me assure you that the federal government is on full alert to deal with these storms. Last week, cabinet secretaries and agency heads met with FEMA Director Brock Long and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in the White House situation room to coordinate the federal response in the potentially impacted areas.


It’s worth noting that successful disaster response and recovery is one that’s locally executed, state managed and federally supported. So FEMA pre-positioned the federal government’s assets to support the governors in achieving their response and recovery goals. And that’s the way emergency management and disaster response works best.


We’re so pleased that Jim Carroll — Acting Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy — is here. Thank you and your office for your contributions to this very important issue. We are very lucky to have the Attorney General with us today and look forward to hearing his remarks. Thanks to everyone here today, and for your commitment to helping make America’s roads safer by reducing the incidence of impaired driving.


The U.S. is in the midst of an escalating opioid epidemic that dates to the 1990s. Last year, the President announced that the Administration was declaring the opioid crisis a national Public Health Emergency under federal law. A cabinet meeting was convened to focus on this and the president directed all agencies to use every appropriate emergency authority to fight the opioid crisis. It is going to be a long and hard battle. Crystal meth also remains a plague in many areas of the country. It is an extremely addictive drug that has never been more available, cheaper or more dangerous than it is today.


These drugs are heinous — they are destroying the users lives, affecting their families and communities and are fueling all kinds of crime. Getting less attention is the fact that these drugs are also proving lethal on America’s highways. These drugs are killing and injuring not just the users, whose impaired driving skills and judgment are causing crashes, but also the occupants of other vehicles and others on the roads — including pedestrians and bicyclists.


And that’s where the U.S. Department of Transportation comes in: safety is our number one priority and drugs are a major threat to the safety of everyone on America’s roads. And they have consequences for all the modes of transportation that DOT oversees — including aviation, transit, rail and pipelines.


The scope of the drug-impaired driving problem is significant and growing. The Governors Highway Safety Association recently reported that 44% of drivers killed in crashes in 2016 tested positive for illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter drugs. That is a dramatic increase from the 28% testing positive in 2006. More than half of these drivers had marijuana, opioids, or both, in their system. The number of drivers killed in crashes who tested positive for marijuana doubled from 2007 to 2015. And some over-the-counter medications contribute to the impaired driving problem. As the FDA cautions consumers: some over-the-counter drugs can impair the ability to drive safely by causing sleepiness, blurred vision and other side effects.


These figures are dramatic, but perhaps not astonishing. After all, thirty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form. And so many people are using opioids, meth, heroin and other drugs which impair motor skills and judgment.


We do not know the full extent of the impaired driving problem because we do not yet have enough data on traffic crashes related to illegal, and legal, drug use. But we have enough information and anecdotal evidence to know that drug-impaired driving is a serious and escalating threat to the safety of everyone on our nation’s roads.



We are challenged by the fact that there are so many drugs and so many variables in terms of how their active ingredients may impair an individual’s driving performance. Currently, there is no universally accepted method for testing driver drug impairment. The available testing methods and standards are continuing to evolve. By comparison, the effect of alcohol is more predictable and its presence easily tested.


Law enforcement bears most of the burden of detecting drug-impaired driving. NHTSA continues to work with partners to develop and support training tools – including Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC). These help train officers on the signs of symptoms of impairment by different categories of drugs. These programs need to reach as many officers as possible. Our nation needs more Drug Recognition Experts in our police departments. And the nation needs more support for Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutors. They are the valuable legal experts who support local prosecutors and district attorneys confronted with increasingly complex impaired driving cases.


In recent months, NHTSA has also convened working groups of experts to develop strategies for improvements in toxicology and data collection as well as prosecution and judicial issues.


Decades of experience in highway safety makes clear that tough laws, effective enforcement and public service campaigns can change attitudes and actions, and save lives. It will take a sustained, intensive, comprehensive and collaborative effort — at the federal, state and local levels of government. Progress will also require effective, ongoing coordination with advocacy organizations and private sector partners. DOT and NHTSA are committed to this effort and we are gratified to be here with you today.


The tremendous progress that has been made against drunk driving over the past four decades is testament to what can be achieved by bringing all these elements to bear. For example, innovative partnerships with the private sector have played a role in reducing drunk driving. The alcohol industry worked alongside MADD to pass .08 blood alcohol content (BAC) laws in all 50 states. Nearly 30 years ago, a group of distillers formed a non-profit organization, now called the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, to advance strategies to eliminate drunk driving and underage drinking. They’ve launched public awareness campaigns, supported high visibility enforcement and effective countermeasures such as ignition interlocks laws, administrative license revocation, and tougher penalties for repeat offenders and drivers at high BAC levels. And much more.


We know that education can make a difference. But its effectiveness increases exponentially when the message not to drive impaired is backed up with the threat of arrest and prosecution. A more robust, comprehensive education and enforcement strategy around all forms of impairment can help address the rising threat of drug-impairment.


NHTSA launched a public awareness campaign last month. It coordinated with safety stakeholders across the U.S to expand both the reach and frequency of the messages through video and radio, print and social media. All of this is directed at raising public awareness that drug-impaired driving is dangerous and illegal. We will continue to emphasize “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.” But this year, for the first time, the campaign also includes “If You Feel Different, You Drive Different: Drive High, Get a DUI.”


The campaign officially started on August 15, 2018, to capture the critical end of summer and Labor Day period. It is supported by a $13 million buy on national television, radio, cinema and digital ads, including the newest drug-impaired driving advertisement. The campaign will continue through September. The Department will put as many resources as possible behind this and other campaigns to deal with the problem of impaired driving.


I’d like to thank all the safety stakeholders who are lifting your voices on this issue. I applaud everyone here today for your determination to help get a handle on the problem of impaired driving and for your commitment to craft the most effective public awareness and enforcement strategies to deal with it.


Every day, new drivers are getting out on the road. Before they get behind the wheel, they need to know their responsibilities and the dangers of drug impairment.


Success will ultimately hinge on our fellow citizens. We will make significant headway when enough people understand that this is a serious and pervasive problem that can have life-changing or even life-ending consequences. And that part of the solution may be looking back at them in their rear-view mirror.


So thank you again for being here today. Let’s renew our commitment to make America’s highways and roads safer, by working as hard as we can together to reduce the incidence of impaired driving.


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