Editor’s Note: Donté Stallworth was drafted in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft and played 10 seasons in the NFL. In 2009, he was convicted of DUI manslaughter following an incident in Miami, Florida. He is now an advocate for ending impaired driving, a writer and CNN contributor. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
His name was Mario Reyes. He was a family man with a wife and daughter. He worked nights as a crane operator on a construction site. On the morning of March 14, 2009, he was headed home from work when he was struck and killed by an impaired driver.
I know that I will never fully understand the pain and anguish my actions caused the Reyes family. It has taken me years to come to terms with the fact that nothing I ever do will make up for it. But I believe that I have a responsibility to do what I can to stop other people from driving impaired and to prevent other families from experiencing the same loss.
December is National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, and drunk driving remains one of the nation’s most serious threats to public safety. After several years in decline, the number of impaired driving fatalities has risen over the last two years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2016, 10,497 people were killed in drunk driving crashes. That is 10,497 families left shattered, 10,497 futures cut short, 10,497 tragedies that could have been avoided.
Over the past several years, I have traveled the country speaking at high schools and universities, and addressing professional athletes about the danger of impaired driving – which can be caused by alcohol, drugs or exhaustion. I’ve met with experts, advocates, law enforcement, victims and offenders alike. What I’ve found is that only by working together can we end impaired driving.
How to prevent impaired driving
When I speak to groups about impaired driving, I often encounter an attitude of “It will never happen to me.”
I can understand where this comes from. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the average impaired person drives impaired about 80 times before they are caught, if they ever are caught.
Part of the problem is that while there is some awareness about the dangers of driving drunk, we tend to dismiss the consequences of simply driving impaired. Drunk driving conjures up the images of someone stumbling to their car outside the bar. But many of these tragedies are caused by other forms of impairment, be it a few drinks, marijuana, exhaustion or some combination of factors.
When I got behind the wheel on March 14, 2009, it was the morning after a night out. I hadn’t had a drink in hours, and so I didn’t associate my actions with driving drunk. I failed to acknowledge the danger of my own impairment.
If people are going to drink, they must understand the difference between responsible and irresponsible drinking. Responsible drinking means having a plan. This includes understanding how alcohol affects your blood alcohol content based on how much and how fast you drink, your gender, age and weight, and how much food they you’ve consumed. And, these days, with technology to hail a ride in the palms of our hands 24-7, there is simply no excuse for impaired driving.
We must continue educating our young people about the consequences of impaired driving, but we must also provide necessary counseling and services to vulnerable kids who may be susceptible to making this life-shattering mistake.
Screening and assessment
Not all impaired drivers are the same. Many DUI offenders only need one arrest to never reoffend. They are capable of changing their behavior and do so out of fear of being arrested again.
But others are not capable of changing without outside intervention. They aren’t bad people; they may simply suffer from a variety of health problems. According to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, repeat offenders commonly suffer from mental health disorders, in addition to substance use issues. Left untreated, repeat DUI offenders are statistically the most dangerous drivers on the road and overrepresented in fatal crashes.
When someone is arrested, law enforcement should use screening and assessment tools to identify drivers likely to become repeat offenders, and identify repeat offenders who have a substance use or mental health disorder. Doing so ensures they receive an appropriate intervention, including supervision, to hold them accountable. It will also get them individualized evidence-based treatment that can address both addiction and mental health.
Research shows that the earlier screening and assessment occurs, the greater the likelihood for success.
Punishment alone will not solve this problem. We need to look for solutions that combine accountability with access to treatment and resources that will permanently change behavior. I recently learned about DUI courts, an extension of the drug court model that is focused specifically on repeat DUI offenders.
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Participants in DUI court are placed under strict supervision by a judge and court staff. They have mandated home visits, continuous alcohol monitoring and frequent appearances in court. They undergo rigorous individual treatment and participate in group therapy. They must pass frequent and random drug tests. In addition to all of this, they’re required to hold down a job, perform community service or advance their education. DUI courts offer both accountability and treatment.
And it works. Research shows that DUI courts are the most successful way to reduce impaired driving, decreasing recidivism by as much as 60%.
Mario Reyes should still be alive. So should the 70,000 other victims of impaired driving who have been killed since 2009.
This is a preventable public safety crisis. By focusing our efforts on prevention, assessment and DUI courts, we can once again begin reducing the number of impaired drivers on our roads.