- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

Alcohol-related traffic death rates dropped nationwide by more than half during the past 20 years, a government study shows, but others say the news isn't all good because the number of deaths started to climb two years ago.
The study, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, shows that 26,173 persons died in 1982 in crashes involving alcohol, which accounted for 60 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths. Last year, 17,448 persons were killed, or 40 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths.
The NHTSA compiled the state-by-state statistics to encourage states to get tough on drunken drivers. The calculations were determined by examining the death rate of each state per 100 million vehicle miles traveled between 1982 to 2001.
But Wendy Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said progress stalled between 1993 and 1999. Since 1999, she said drunken-driving deaths rates climbed 5 percent.
Miss Hamilton attributes the rise to the complacency of the American public and political leaders.
"They have been focused on the economy and terrorist attacks," Miss Hamilton said. "But the public and political leaders need to get refocused, because alcohol-related deaths are a preventable problem."
Miss Hamilton said states need more money to help increase sobriety checkpoints and other methods that deter drunken driving.
The NHTSA and law enforcement in every state said they will start the yearlong effort to curb impaired driving by increasing sobriety checkpoints and patrols from Dec. 20 through Jan. 5.
Locally, the alcohol-related death rate in Maryland fell 55 percent in the last 20 years with 290 fatalities in 2001, while Virginia's fell 61 percent with 340.
But in the District, alcohol-related traffic death rates increased 63 percent since 1982. There were 38 alcohol-related fatalities in 2001.
Since July, District police stepped up efforts to curb drunken driving by conducting weekly sobriety checkpoints. Alcohol-testing vans have been patrolling the streets to expedite the testing process.
"The statistics for the District in the NHTSA study could be easily skewed because it is a city, not a state," said Lt. Patrick Burke, D.C. police traffic coordinator.
Lt. Burke said what makes the death rate high is the availability of alcohol in the District.
"Washington, D.C., is a tourist area with a substantial amount of restaurants and bars that serve alcohol," Lt. Burke said.
States with the highest death rates are South Carolina and South Dakota. Drivers in each state are four times more likely to die in drunken-driving crashes than drivers in Nevada, the state with the lowest death rate.
The curb in drunken driving nationwide could be attributed to a national movement established in 1982.
President Reagan formed a presidential task force on drunken driving in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, Congress raised the drinking age to 21 and the newly formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving began pushing for tougher anti-drinking legislation nationwide.
Tougher seat-belt laws and improvements in vehicle safety also have been considered contributors to lower alcohol-related crash deaths.

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