Federal panel tackles local problem: Wrong way drivers

8:02 PM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
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ATLANTA, Ga. -- We've talked a lot about wrong way drivers in Atlanta lately and now a federal safety panel is taking notice as well.

On Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board met in Washington, D.C. to release the findings of its national study and approve 16 recommendations to combat the problem.

Each year more than 400 people die in wrong way crashes on our nation's freeways. Five people died here in metro Atlanta in just one month.

"69% of the people who are wrong way drivers are drunk. They're not imbibing or having a few cocktails, they're drunk," said Harris Blackwood, the Director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

That's why many of the NTSB's recommendations target alcohol. In Georgia, a driver convicted twice of DUI, must use an ignition interlock device, basically a breathalyzer for the car. But the NTSB wants them on the first offense.

"The first step to address the number one killer on our roadways is to do what is proven to be effective - use interlocks for all DWI offenders," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman.

It's an idea supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but already being publicly opposed by the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association claiming to represent 8,000 American restaurants.

Blackwood expects lawmakers to debate the idea next year, but warns, it only applies to drivers once they're convicted.

"If a person is charged tonight with DUI, it could be two years before that case is adjudicated," he said.

Blackwood also points out most wrong way crashes are caused drivers without a record. That's why the NTSB believes every car should fail to start if the driver is impaired. It's helping to test two devices that could be built into a car to detect alcohol in the driver's system, either through their breath or skin.

"Technology is the game changer in reducing alcohol-related crashes on our nation's roadways," board chairman Deborah Hersman said. "Achieving zero alcohol-impaired driving-related deaths is possible only if society is willing to separate the impaired driver from the driving task."

The NTSB is also working with GPS manufacturers to create a standard warning in case drivers turn down a street going the wrong way.

"This is kind of an innovation not just to tell us to turn around, you know, you're going the wrong direction, but to say 'You're going the wrong way'," said NTSB board member Mark Rosekind.

Drunk drivers may not think to use a GPS, but older drivers might. The NTSB says drivers over 70 make up a disproportionate number of wrong way drivers. For them the problem isn't alcohol, it's deteriorating health.

The NTSB says in 2009, 84% of people 70 and older, had a driver license. It wants state's to adopt a rigorous safety program to find those older drivers that need to hang up their keys.

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