Radio Address to the Nation on New Year's Day

January 1, 1983

My fellow Americans:

I've always thought New Year's Day was an especially American tradition, full of the optimism and hope we're famous for in our daily lives -- an energy and confidence we call the American spirit.

Perhaps because we know we control our own destiny, we believe deep down inside that working together we can make each new year better than the old.

Although last night was one of parties, today is one of resolutions. Reviewing the old year, we try to decide what we can do better in the new. Most of us are with our families, near the warmth of the hearth, watching the parades with our children and football with our friends. Gathered together, we find strength and renewal.

But this special holiday time is tragically marred for too many of us. You may have spotted the reason on the road last night if you had to drive home: the drunk driver.

Each year, approximately 25,000 lives are lost in alcohol-related automobile accidents. An additional 650,000 are seriously injured. The personal pain and heartache caused by these needless tragedies is immeasurable, and billions of dollars are lost in medical costs, wages, and through hours of missed work. This weekend, while millions of Americans are traveling on our highways and streets and while hundreds of millions more are celebrating with their loved ones, let's take a few minutes to think of ways to protect ourselves and our families from the menace of the drunk and drug-influenced driver.

The first step is to realize that a drunk-driver accident is no accident. The motorist who drinks too much and then drives, who uses drugs and then gets behind the wheel of a car, is a disaster waiting to happen. Overall, alcohol is now involved in up to 55 percent of all fatal highway crashes and is a contributing factor in more than 2 million motor vehicle accidents each year. The drunk driver has turned his car into a weapon -- a weapon that threatens the lives and safety of the innocent.

Fortunately, there's a brighter side. Today we have one of our best opportunities in years to tackle this tragic problem. Public awareness has never been higher. Citizens groups, local officials, legislators, judges, police officers -- people from all over the country are saying, ``Enough is enough. Let's get these killers off our roads and get them off now.''

Last April, I appointed a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving to explore the problem more fully and to work with State and local governments to develop effective programs. Their interim report has already come in and has some useful findings. For example, we've found that people who've had too much to drink are less likely to drive when they know they have a good chance of being caught. The potential drunk driver who understands that prosecution is certain and the penalty swift will be less likely to insist on driving home.

For this deterrent to work, however, State and local law enforcement officials must make it clear that they mean business. Programs are already springing up in some States with good results. In areas where police have made drunk drivers a prime target, traffic deaths have begun to decline. For example, in Maine, alcohol-related crashes have dropped 41 percent since that State's drunk driving program was strengthened. The highway death rate there is the lowest since they started keeping records. Maryland has also intensified its program, and highway deaths there are at a 19-year low.

Since 1980, 11 States have raised the legal drinking age and many other communities, counties, and States have strengthened their laws, some requiring mandatory jail sentences for first offenders. In New York, for example, the fines and fees levied on those arrested are directed to local alcohol programs. In many areas, citizen groups are assisting State and local task forces, providing legislative support, and participating in court monitoring and victim assistance. Of course, until we change our attitudes and our laws, our best protection is still to buckle our safety belts.

There's much to be done if we're to rid ourselves of this scourge on our roads, and there's a continuing need for private initiative. We must each make it our personal responsibility. If we band together, we can change the laws that will help make the difference. If we insist long enough and loudly enough, we can save lives. So, I thought it appropriate to start the ball rolling on this, the first day of the new year.

Today, we're taking a break from the concerns and the bustle of the work-a-day world. But we're also making a new beginning. As we gather around our dining room tables for the midday meal, let us thank God for life and the blessings He's put before us. High among them are our families, our freedom, and the opportunities of a new year.

Let us renew our faith that as free men and women we still have the power to better our lives, and let us resolve to face the challenges of the new year holding that conviction firmly in our hearts. That, after all, is our greatest strength and our greatest gift as Americans.

So, till next week, thanks for listening, happy new year, and God bless you.

Note: The President's remarks were recorded on December 23 in the Cabinet Room at the White House for broadcast on January 1.