I first became interested in this issue when, as a 25-year-old, right out of law school, my first job was as an assistant county prosecuting attorney. I was involved in the prosecution of vehicular homicide cases, drunk driving cases.
One of my jobs was frankly to talk and work with the victims, the families, the people who survived. I remember one particular case where I was called to the emergency room of the hospital and saw two elderly people, one had just died and the other was being operated on and died five days later. They were killed by a drunk driver.
I think all of us have had that experience but when you're a prosecutor, you see it and you can understand it a little more because you see it firsthand.
When I was in the State Senate, we had a tragedy in our home county. We had a little 7-year-old boy by the name of Justin Beason who was killed by a driver who had been drinking. His grandfather came to me and I'll never forget the anguish and horror that I saw in his eyes and the horrible sadness and as a result of that, I wrote in 1982 in the Ohio State Senate, Ohio's first really tough drunk driving law.
We established in that drunk driving law a per se violation which is something we in Ohio had not had. In fact, most States at that time, did not have that.
I would like today to talk about four issues very briefly. Let me start simply by saying that we lose some 40,000 people every year in this country killed in auto fatalities. If it was any other cause than that -- if it was an epidemic, if it was a disease, we would be up in arms as a country.
To some extent, we are numb to auto fatalities. We are numb because everyone knows someone who has been killed or knows a family that has been touched.
I just would ask this committee to look at four specific things that I think we can do that will, in fact, make a difference. I would like to start with the .08 and I understand fully the concerns that have been expressed and I know will be expressed about the States rights issue involved here. I do appreciate those.
I would simply say that when we deal with issues such as this, I think this is one of the few times we can cast a vote in the Senate where we know our vote will actually save lives. Many times we think it will, many times we think we know what the results are and we're dealing with some of these areas in regard to highway safety and things we know will, in fact, work.
One is lowering the alcohol level to .08. That seems like a very small change, to go from .1. Most States today have it at .10. There is a minority of States that have it at .08, but we find is that this is a really critical period. What we find is that once you get to about .06 -- and it varies obviously by individual -- but once you get in that range, then you see the impairment magnified. Each 2 percentage points is magnified and magnified.
I know when the previous panel was here, it's my understanding you had some discussion about the statistics. I would like to submit to the committee a letter which I will prepare today with additional statistics, because I think the evidence is fairly overwhelming that in the States that have made the change, they have seen a significant reduction.
Thirty-five States have established the per se laws at .10, 13 have established, a minority, at .08 but the fact is that drivers, all drivers, are substantially impaired at .08. Both laboratory and on-the-road tests show the vast majority of drivers, even those who are very experienced, are significantly impaired at .08.
They had trouble braking, they had trouble steering, they have trouble with other driving tasks. They certainly have trouble with judgment. The risk of being in a crash rises with each increase in the blood alcohol level. We know that. But it rises very rapidly after a driver gets into the area of .06, .07, or .08.
Most of the States that already have a .08 law found that it has helped to decrease the number of alcohol-related fatalities. A recent study of the first five States to lower their blood alcohol limit showed I believe convincing results. They showed in fact that if you compared those five States versus five States that were comparable States that did not change, although you had a reduction in each State, the reduction was about three times as much as those States that took it to .08 as those that kept it at .10.
Let me talk about another issue, which is school bus safety. Let me preface this by saying something I always try to say, and I've worked on school bus safety for the last several years, school buses are the most safe form of transportation there is statistically. Parents should always remember that.
If there's a choice between putting your child on a school bus or letting your 16-year-old drive to school, statistically, there is absolutely no choice. I want to put that out right at the beginning.
We have had a great deal of success in the last several years in dealing with a very specific school bus safety problem and that has to do with unsafe hand rails that are on school buses. Most of the buses that have these unsafe handrails are now off and they've been taken off on a voluntary basis, so it's not been something the Federal Government has mandated.
This arose from a tragedy that occurred in my home county where we had a little child by the name of Brandy Browder who was drug along with the school bus because she had her drawstring that got caught in this defect in the school bus.
There have been a lot of changes made. There are still some of these buses out there. I'm going to use this forum one more time to remind every school district in this country. It's a very simple test. The remedy is $5. It doesn't cost much but we need to be vigilant to make sure these buses are no longer on the road. Most of them, frankly, are now off the road.
I believe also, Mr. Chairman, that school buses are the safest form of transportation. We still lose upwards of 45 to 50 children every year who are killed. Most of them are killed getting on and off the bus. Most of them are killed for any number of reasons, but in almost every case, it is a school bus driver error.
Again, I think this reinforces the need to increase the attention we pay to school bus safety issues.
Finally, seat belts. If there's one thing we know about seat belts, it is that they save lives. But today, in many States, including Ohio, not wearing a seat belt is not considered a primary offense; in other words, you can't get pulled over for not wearing one, but you can be charged for not wearing one if you're pulled over for some other offense. We need to do what we can to see that the seat belt laws get elevated to the status they deserve. We have them on the books for a reason: they save lives. Let's make them effective.
Mr. Chairman, I look forward to working on all of these issues with you and other concerned Senators, and I thank you very much for holding this important hearing.