As most people know, impaired drivers (drunk or high) are a menace on our roadways. What is less recognized, however, is that most (57%) of the children who die in impaired-driver crashes are passengers of the impaired driver. Unsurprisingly, studies show that children riding with an impaired driver are less likely to be properly restrained, and restraint use decreases with increasing child age and driver blood alcohol content. And, since the driver survives 71% of these crashes, many children who perish would likely survive if properly restrained.
These statistics are tragic, but readers may wonder how a CPST could possibly be part of the solution to this long-standing behavioral problem. After all, CPSTs can neither prevent an impaired driver from taking the wheel nor educate in a way that suggests the technician fears a caregiver might drive while impaired.
While that may be true, Stephanie Tombrello wants CPSTs to recognize that impaired driving is, indeed, an important CPS issue. Tombrello, a founder of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. (SBS USA), has had a long career as a CPS educator, advocate, and organizer who has worked tirelessly on countless CPS issues, especially those aimed at improving safety restraint use (see below for a brief description of her many contributions).
Today, Tombrello is shining a spotlight on children who ride with impaired drivers because she has come to see this issue as one of the greatest risks faced by child passengers. In the most recent data from NHTSA (2021), crashes involving alcohol impairment accounted for 25% of all child crash fatalities. A staggering 61.8% of these children were riding with the impaired driver. In cases where the driver had a blood alcohol level over .08 (the legal threshold for impairment in most states), 43% of the children killed were unrestrained (compared with 38% unrestrained when the driver was not alcohol-impaired).
This data, while eye-opening, does not reveal the whole story. For instance, it doesn’t capture CR misuse, and 13% of the time, the restraint status of children killed in drunk driving crashes was coded as “unknown.” Also, the statistics relate only to alcohol impairment; NHTSA’s report does not provide statistics for crashes involving other types of impairment. In other words, while this data is useful, it understates the depth and scope of the problem.
These statistics point to a true safety risk to child passengers, so impaired driving should, by definition, be an issue on the radar of CPSTs. Furthermore, adult survivors have expressed to Tombrello that the trauma of being forced to ride with an impaired driver—often on multiple harrowing rides—remains a significant aspect of their emotional state for a lifetime, even when they were never involved in a crash.
So, how can CPSTs take an active role as part of the solution to this CPS problem?
The first step would be to help raise awareness. In particular, it can be beneficial to communicate the facts to local professionals who engage with families dealing with addiction and impairment. (A free two-page handout from SBS USA on this topic can be found here.)
If you think, “Surely, these professionals must already know,” think again. Professionals, like most people, presume that a parent would never endanger a child in this way. So, we cannot simply assume that the lawyers, law enforcement officers, emergency care workers, social workers, healthcare providers, and others in family-related fields recognize this issue. Enlightening these professionals could motivate them to work to prevent a child from being in a car with an impaired driver. For example, social workers might be able to advise families to work together to keep kids out of the vehicle of an impaired driver, including when laying out the terms of visitation for parents who are separated.
CPSTs can also get involved by working with local agencies and organizations that are proposing solutions to the impaired driving problem. For instance, it is appropriate to advocate for law changes that prevent repeat offenders from taking the wheel or regulations that employ technology to prevent anyone who is impaired from driving. Partnering with other groups helps bring the safety needs of children to their attention, and this interaction is aligned with the current Safe System approach that the federal government is using to reach zero roadway deaths.
And, of course, anytime CPSTs get to educate children, such as when talking to Head Start or other preschool audiences, they empower children to take charge of their own safety. Naturally, the assumption of such training is not that a child’s trusted caregiver would drive impaired, nor should that be the message. But children who do find themselves in this deeply unsettling situation are more likely to help keep themselves safe if they have the training and conviction to buckle up properly, even when a caregiver lets them down.
Because driver impairment is a factor in a quarter of child crash fatalities, the risks posed by drivers impaired by drugs and/or alcohol should be covered in the CPST curriculum, and new techs should be given standardized messaging to use in education, whether one-on-one or in presentations. And, as professionals dedicated to the safety of child passengers, all CSPTs need to keep these children in mind when planning their safety strategies.
About Stephanie Tombrello
Many SRN readers know (or know of) Stephanie Tombrello, a major force in the CPS field since its earliest days of grassroots advocacy to the present. CPSTs in her home state of California and throughout the country have all benefited from her long career, including her latest efforts to bring awareness to the issue of children riding with impaired drivers.
Notably, Tombrello cofounded Safety-BeltSafe U.S.A., where she was executive director until just over a year ago. Although she would be the first to say her work was supported by a great team at SBS USA, as well as her family, she was instrumental in the development and promotion of many key CPS tools, like the 5-Step Test for safety belt readiness, the Technical Encyclopedia, the annual Child Restraint Manufacturers’ Instructions compilation, and many other resources that can be found here.
For a longer—though still abridged—biography, see the announcement that accompanies Tombrello’s induction as an inaugural member of the CPS Hall of Fame at.
Reference: Children Traffic Safety Facts, 2021 Data, May 2023. Search “children” here.