Opinion: Take a stand for your highway safety in 2016

Lt. Col. John LeBlanc Executive Director, Louisiana Highway Safety Commission Governor's Highway Safety Representative
Lt. Col. John LeBlanc

What are you looking forward to in the coming year? Perhaps you're taking the family vacation of your dreams. Or maybe your youngest child is graduating. Or this could be the year you buy your first home.

Whatever your hopes for 2016, they certainly don't involve tragedy. Yet, if the past years are any indication, there unfortunately are hundreds of Louisiana families who will suffer the pain of losing a loved one in a car crash this year - more than likely as a result of impaired driving or lack of seat belt use.  But it helps to understand the risk and to know what to do to lower your exposure.

According to the most recently finalized crash data, 42 percent of Louisiana highway fatalities in 2014 involved a driver who had consumed alcohol above the legal limit. In addition, in cases where seat belt use was known, 60 percent of drivers killed in 2014 were not wearing a safety belt.

Further, when we examine the data, we recognize another disturbing trend: an increase in fatal single-vehicle crashes between 2012 and 2014. This data, analyzed by the LSU Highway Safety Research Group, reveals a striking similarity among crashes. They almost always occur late at night or in the early morning hours, frequently involve alcohol and often feature the heart-wrenching detail that at least one of the victims had been ejected from the vehicle for lack of a seat belt. There's almost always speed involved - and, yes, tragically, the victims tend to be in the prime of their lives.

There were 311 fatal single-vehicle crashes in 2014, up from 274 in 2012 and 284 in 2013. Prior to 2012, the number of crashes in this category had declined from a high of 420 in 2007. This is a trend we don't want to see continue.

Single-vehicle fatalities and the alcohol-related fatalities of young drivers often overlap. In 2014, the alcohol-related crash rate of 18-24 year olds increased for the first time in five years, lending particular concern to their driving practices.

Considering their inexperience and tendency toward risky behavior, it's not surprising the fatality rate of Louisiana's young drivers is generally higher than the driving public as a whole, with 18 to 20-year-old drivers about twice the average of drivers of all groups in 2014 to die in alcohol-related fatal crashes.

Of course, not everyone who dies in a single-vehicle or alcohol-related crash is young, and not all fatalities are related to impaired driving or lack of seat belt use. However, there are some things we know about traffic crashes and fatalities. They are almost always related to a combination of factors: impairment, speed, distraction and lack or improper use of seat belts. 

From 2007 to 2014, Louisiana has enjoyed a significant drop in highway fatalities overall - amounting to 26 percent fewer deaths and hundreds of lives saved. Historic increases in seat belt use, stricter DUI penalties, high-visibility enforcement and education programs targeted at young people have made a difference in Louisiana. However, it's that small percentage of drivers who aren't buckling up and who are still driving impaired who are dying on our highways and causing the deaths of innocent victims.

In 2016, resolve to make highway safety a top priority for yourself and your family. Take a stand that driving impaired is unacceptable. Spread the word that buckling up is the simplest way to ensure you survive a crash, and set an example by always buckling up yourself.

Louisiana has some of the strictest seat belt and DUI laws on the books -- and all of us who are focused on saving lives on the highway are determined to enforce them. But in the end, what happens in your vehicle and your safety on Louisiana's highways is really up to you.