Noble McIntyre is the senior partner and owner of McIntyre Law, an Oklahoma personal injury law firm.
Traffic fatalities in Oklahoma decreased from 765 in 2006, to 627 in 2010, according to the Oklahoma Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2012 (FY2012). That’s an encouraging trend, but I don’t think anyone would disagree that it could be improved. Unfortunately, the state of Oklahoma seems to feel those numbers are good enough because the budget for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety (ODPS) is being cut by 3 percent for Fiscal Year 2012. While this may mean a reduction in law enforcement, or fewer personnel working to provide Oklahomans with drivers’ licenses, what’s really going to suffer are public safety education programs, which could further reduce traffic fatalities in the state.
Right now, ODPS offers education programs for boating safety, and there’s an Alive at 25 program aimed at educating kids and adults between the ages of 16 and 24 about driving safety, which is run by the Oklahoma Safety Council. But surprisingly, Oklahoma doesn’t offer programs to educate the public about the dangers of drunk driving. Instead, the ODPS website links to national educational resources. This is particularly surprising because although the number of traffic fatalities in Oklahoma overall has decreased in recent years, the number of alcohol-related fatalities increased between 2005 and 2009. (To view the report, click Enter As A Guest)
In addition, while Oklahoma does ban texting while driving for all ages at all times, there is no formal state program with the goal of educating Oklahoma drivers about distracted driving. According to recently compiled distracted driving statistics, distracted drivers are 23 times more likely to cause accidents than drunk drivers. And it’s not just texting while driving. Other driving distractions include eating, adjusting the stereo or GPS device, or even just talking to passengers. With more than 27,000 traffic deaths in 2009 that could possibly be attributed to distracted driving, it’s clear more public education about this growing problem is needed.
Laws banning driving under the influence and texting while driving aren’t enough. The lack of state programs to complement those laws makes the endeavor only half as effective as it could be, and puts Oklahoma behind other states that are taking more aggressive action to stop both drunk and distracted driving.
For example, the Texas Department of Transportation has a holiday “Don’t Drink and Drive”. While it would be ideal if the program were extended to be year-round, it’s a start. The state has also taken an unconventional approach to reach Hispanic residents by producing an original mini telenovela series about the dangers of drinking and driving. This shows Texas is keenly aware of its demographics, and is making an effort to include everyone in their safety program efforts.
Connecticut has gone a step further with a program to educate the public about distracted driving. Current state law prohibits the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving. But Connecticut police actually enforce that law. Similar to setting up speed traps, state law enforcement has cracked down on texting while driving by stopping drivers seen using cell phones and other devices while behind the wheel. Between October 2005 and April 2010 nearly 117,000 tickets were issued for distracted driving alone.
Referring back to Oklahoma’s Executive Budget for FY2012, the two stated purposes of the ODPS are drivers’ license services, and law enforcement. Until public safety education is included not only in the ODPS mission, but in its budget, it’s likely that traffic fatalities caused by drunk and distracted driving will only continue to increase.
Despite current economic conditions, not only in Oklahoma but across the nation, it’s difficult to understand how the state legislature can agree to cut the state budget, particularly those portions that pertain to public safety. As traffic fatalities increase, we can assume that medical care costs will also increase, and insurance premiums —both health and vehicle—will also rise.
Much like many medical conditions can be avoided through preventive measures such as diet and exercise, public safety education can go a long way to reducing the number of traffic fatalities in our state, and preventing loss of life should be one of the state’s highest priorities.
The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.