When James Nichols was in graduate school at the University of South Dakota in 1969, he heard drunk driving expert Bob Voas speak about a new federal program called the Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP). The program looked at the effectiveness of various treatment programs for drunk drivers. Intrigued, Nichols became involved with that program as a public safety trainee. He hasn't looked back since.
"I just realized this was really an opportunity to make a difference," Nichols said.
Nichols' efforts through ASAP and through subsequent projects with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have led to national recognition. In November, the National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD) honored Nichols as 2002 Humanitarian of the Year for his efforts towards drunk driving and driver safety.
"I think most everyone in the field of highway safety knows of Jim Nichols. He has contributed over 30 years to public safety," said NCADD president John Moulden, who's known Nichols since 1972, when they both served at NHTSA. "He has such an abiding commitment that it pervades everything he does. He is just one of those unsung heroes of highway safety."
Nichols’ career within NHTSA spans from former director of office of research and traffic records for traffic safety programs, to director of the office of occupant protection. He also served as deputy director for the office of alcohol and state programs.
But his first project with the NHTSA was with ASAP. In ASAP, Nichols conducted research on several efforts to curb drunken driving. During the first 10 years of the program, Nichols examined the effectiveness of DWI schools, determining which programs worked best for drunken drivers. In the 1980s, he looked at the effectiveness of law enforcement on drunken driving. In the mid-1980s, he helped Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) develop its public policy, and he was involved in programs involving implied consent and roadside checkpoints.
"Drunk driving reduced by one-third in the last two decades," Nichols said. "Along with that come thousands of deaths or injuries that could've been prevented."
But Nichols wasn't involved only in drunk driving programs. He's also researched issues of child passenger seats, air bags and seat-belt use. In the early 1980s, he was part of a seat-belt program that lobbied for mandatory seat-belt usage nationally. Presently as a consultant, Nichols is working with the Centers for Disease Control to do a systemic review of what works in NHTSA's programs for occupant protection and alcohol-impaired driving.
"It's just been really a tremendous career. It just had all kinds of opportunities to make a difference," Nichols said.
Former colleague and vice president of the transportation safety group at the National Safety Council Chuck Hurley said Nichols' demeanor, coupled with his expertise, brings groups together for a cause.
"He is the rare Ph.D. that brings state-of-the-art information to people without a shred of arrogance," Hurley said, pointing to Nichols' efforts in establishing higher drinking ages and promoting seat-belt enforcement. "He brings high energy to meetings, that invites the participation of others."
Moulden agreed, "There's no question that people are alive because of Jim Nichols and what he's done."
Although Nichols said he's honored by the award, it's icing on the cake.
"I'm just really thrilled that NCADD recognized my work, it really feels nice ... but for the most part, it's the satisfaction of making a difference," Nichols said.