Drunk Driving…Continues to be a Major Concern

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

dui
from: White & Associates Law, MN

A bold new report leads with that statement and recommends a multi-faceted, comprehensive approach to eliminating drunk-driving related deaths. The report comes from the Committee on Accelerating Progress to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities, a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to address this topic. The committee supports the concept of Vision Zero, stating in their report that “no alcohol-impaired driving deaths are acceptable, and that every stakeholder has a role in preventing these deaths.”

“Alcohol-impaired driving remains the deadliest and costliest danger on U.S. roads today.  Every day in the U.S., 29 people die in an alcohol-impaired driving crash – one death every 49 minutes – making it a persistent public health and safety problem.”

The report documents how, beginning in the 1980s, steps were taken to reduce drunk driving and to educate the public about its dangers. Such steps included new laws making it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level above a certain level. These approaches lead to a decrease in drunk driving-related fatalities for two decades, but now the decline in these fatalities has plateaued. It is clear that a new approach is needed for progress to continue.

The committee created a conceptual framework to show the sequence of behaviors that can lead to an alcohol-impaired driving fatality, potential interventions for this behavior, and important factors that impact outcomes. The interventions would interact with each other at multiple levels, including “individual, interpersonal, institutional, community, and societal.”

The interventions fall into four primary categories:

  • Interventions to reduce drinking to impairment, such as limiting alcohol availability and marketing, especially for under-age drinkers
  • Interventions to reduce driving while impaired, including: creating viable, affordable, safe transportation alternatives for drinkers who may drive; strongly enforcing drunk driving laws; and promoting the use in-vehicle technologies that can restrict drivers with over a threshold BAC level from being able to start their vehicle.
  • Post-arrest and post-crash interventions, such as health care programs for preventing, evaluating, and treating alcohol dependency; and increased support both for first-time driving under the influence (DUI) offenders as well as habitual offenders to modify these behaviors.
  • Data and surveillance systems, including: expanding and standardizing data collection on alcohol-impaired related crashes, arrests, and convictions, long-term outcomes, and why people drive while impaired; and integrating the collected data sets for research, evaluation, and data-sharing purposes.

 Massachusetts has a history of addressing the issue of alcohol-impaired driving using education and enforcement with the coordination of multiple agencies. Each year for example, the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security leads the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over enforcement and education effort over the December-New Year holiday season.  This effort includes high visibility police patrols and impaired driving enforcement at high crash locations across the state. One result of Massachusetts’ efforts is that the rate of alcohol-impaired traffic deaths in Massachusetts is consistently among the lowest in the nation. Moreover, the rate of alcohol-related driving deaths in Massachusetts has fallen approximately 20 percent since 2007. However, as with the national trends, the decrease in these deaths in Massachusetts has slowed in recent years, and between 2015 and 2016, there was actually a small increase from 109 to 119 people killed statewide in alcohol-related crashes.

New Federal Committee on Motorcycle Safety Holds First Meeting

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

motocycle

Last month, the Motorcycle Advisory Committee (MAC) held its initial meeting in Arlington, VA. This federal committee was created to advise the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on motorcycle safety and to identify engineering-related infrastructure solutions for reducing motorcyclist fatalities.

There were 5,286 roadway fatalities nationally involving motorcycles in 2016, an increase of 5% from the previous year. In Massachusetts, 40 motorcyclist fatalities were reported during the same year.

As described on transportation.gov, “the MAC consists of ten members selected by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao. [The members] come from across the country and are experts in a wide range of motorcycle-infrastructure topics. Each is a motorcyclist and, combined, the MAC members have over two centuries of riding experience.”

At the first MAC meeting, there were substantial discussions on many infrastructure issues, including work zones, roundabouts, roadside hardware, roadway maintenance practices, the potential consequences of automated vehicles and crash testing, among others. At upcoming meetings, the MAC will determine how to advise FHWA on these issues. For its part, FHWA has research underway to identify key infrastructure-based safety issues for motorcyclists. The centerpiece of this work is the FHWA’s Motorcycle Crash Causation Study. According to the study web site, “The Motorcycle Crash Causation Study is the most comprehensive data collection effort to study the causes of U.S. motorcycle crashes in more than 30 years. The dataset includes data from at least 351 crash investigations, and 702 control rider interviews.”

A couple of current safety features on motorcycles to prevent future fatalities include: new breaking lights and the required anti-lock brake feature. The break light feature is the first wearable brake light connected to a smart phone app.  The anti-lock brake feature has been an option on motorcycles for years, but it may soon become a requirement based on the safety advantages.

In addition to technology and infrastructure improvements for motorcycle safety, some changes in how motorcyclists are trained may be warranted as well. Researchers at UMass-Amherst, led by now Ph.D. graduate Jeffrey Muttart, have conducted field studies on motorcyclist eye glance and driving behavior, including studies where participants went through the same on-road course as car drivers and as motorcyclists. Key findings in one study were that motorcyclists were less likely to come to a complete stop at a stop sign than car drivers, and that study participants made later final glances toward the direction of the most threatening traffic before they made a turn when they were driving a car than when they were riding a motorcycle.

New Year, New UMass Human Performance Lab Web Site

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

HPL
Photo Source: Shannon Roberts, Human Performance Lab, UMass Amherst

The Human Performance Lab (HPL) based at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has a brand new look! The HPL was originally created by Professor Donald Fisher in the 1990s and is world-renowned for its work on teen driver training. In 2016, the University of Massachusetts Transportation Center (UMTC) Affiliate Researcher Professor Shannon Roberts joined the HPL and now serves as the HPL co-director, overseeing research activities of the lab and day-to-day operations. Professor Roberts’ research is focused on driver feedback, in-vehicle interface design, automated vehicles, and teen/novice drivers. Her research group’s web site has information on her team and other interests.

With Dr. Robert’s arrival, the lab underwent significant changes. Upgrades include a new vehicle (2015 Ford Fusion), five new projectors with an expanded field of view of 330 degrees, new channels for displaying the side and rear-view mirrors and a new in-vehicle display.  The HPL has also obtained other new equipment including Virtual Reality (VR) headsets for delivering training and using with simulations, and a new heart-rate monitor to use with participants in lab studies.  Coming soon will be an instrumented vehicle for use with on-road studies.  The upgraded equipment will significantly expand the lab’s research capabilities.  One recent new area of research for the lab involves autonomous vehicles.  This is the transfer of driving control from driver to vehicle, and drivers’ awareness of their surroundings and ability to respond to potential roadway hazards as they switch from autonomous modes that require more attention and input from the driver, to those that require less attention.

As it has since its beginning, the lab, based in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, continues to collaborate with other departments at UMass-Amherst including Civil Engineering, the UMTC, Computer Science, Electric and Computer Engineering, and Psychology.

GHSA Announces New Research Partnership with Transportation Research Board

by:  Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is pleased to announce the launch of a new forum for collaborative research through the Behavioral Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Program (BTSCRP).  Speaking with Kara Macek, GHSA, “this partnership between GHSA and TRB brings a Research Panel together that will provide oversight and ownership, while promoting actionable results on each project.”

Using Advanced Science and Technology to Detect Marijuana Use

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

Massachusetts is one of twenty-nine U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, that now legally allow marijuana for recreational or broad medical uses or both (full list of these states available here). The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) recently launched a public safety campaign, Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, to warn and inform the public about the impairments that marijuana causes in drivers and the increased driving danger when alcohol and marijuana are combined. Marijuana is proven to impact the brain’s ability to function properly. Marijuana’s primary psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has been shown to slow reaction times, impair coordination, and decrease decision-making ability.

One challenge for enforcement regarding marijuana use and driving is that impairment from marijuana is more difficult to measure than impairment from alcohol. There is currently no proven equivalent to an alcohol type breathalyzer test that measures blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to assess drunk driving. Unlike alcohol that dissolves in water, THC dissolves in fat. As toxicologist Marilyn Huestis discussed in an NPR story, this means that that the length of time that THC lingers in the body varies more than with alcohol, and is influenced by factors such as amount of body fat, type of cannabis product consumed, and frequency of use. It also means that a person’s blood THC levels may not directly correlate to when they are most impaired.  Some states such as Colorado, Washington, Montana and Pennsylvania, define marijuana impairment using blood THC levels to legally define when someone is too impaired to drive. The state regulations in Ohio and Nevada determine impairment by blood tests and urine tests.

The San Diego Police department, and other enforcement agencies in New York, Arizona, and Nevada, have been screening drivers for THC using a mouth-swabbing testing device (the Dräger DrugTest 5000), which can test for the presence of seven drugs, including marijuana. The marijuana test is for delta-9 THC, the active THC compound which creates the high from marijuana. Unlike other components of THC, delta-9 THC typically only stays in a person’s system for a few hours and not days or weeks.  Stanford University researchers have been developing a saliva-based test for THC using magnetic nanotechnology.  Recently, police departments have been pilot testing a handheld breathalyzer for marijuana detection from Hound Labs. The device measures delta-9 THC levels and is able to detect marijuana from either inhaling or edibles. Cannabis Technologies is also developing a marijuana breathalyzer.  These THC detection methods are often used in conjunction with other field sobriety and impairment testing.

In Massachusetts, Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) are specially trained to detect impairment from drug use.  A full DRE exam takes about an hour and includes physiological measures (blood pressure, pulse, eye exams), and performance measures (balance, coordination). As described in a 2016 Boston.com article Massachusetts and other states are now offering a less intensive training, Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE), which is still a step above typical field sobriety training.

In a September 2017 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision, the Court found that police cannot use standard field sobriety tests to determine definitively that a driver is too high to drive. The court determined that the standard sobriety tests were developed to evaluate alcohol intoxication and there is not yet sufficient evidence that they are indicative of marijuana intoxication.  Under the ruling, police officers can still conduct field sobriety tests and testify about their observations regarding a driver’s demeanor and ability to perform physical coordination and mental tasks.

Dr. Michael Millburn, a Psychology professor at UMass Boston, has been developing a smart device app to assess driver impairment called DRUID.  This app has been designed to measure cognitive and behavior impairment from marijuana, alcohol, prescription drugs and other brain-based contributors to impairment, such as fatigue. It contains a series of four different tests for reaction time, errors in decision making, motor tracking, and time estimation and balance. The app then integrates the results of each of the individual tests into an overall impairment score. The tests are completed in 5 minutes total.  The app was developed to help people assess their own impairment, but could also be adapted for police use.  The app is currently being tested at Brown Medical School.  Research shows that some types of marijuana have non-linear patterns of impairment following consumption. Apps such as this could be useful for supporting driver safety and important complements to other tools and tests for measuring THC, alcohol, and other substances that can impair driver performance.

Cambridge police officer Jason Callinan, a drug recognition expert, or DRE, performs the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) on Jeremy Warnick, the department's spokesman, as part of a demonstration. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Cambridge police officer, Jason Callinan, a drug recognition expert, or DRE, performs a demo of a field sobriety test.   (Source: Jesse Costa, WBUR)

Written by Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow