- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

Terrorists killed some 3,000 people in the United States last year. Drunk drivers killed more than 5 times that many. The war to root out terrorism is going well, but the campaign against drunk driving has taken a turn for the worse. In our well-founded fear of Middle Eastern zealots trying to slaughter Americans in unpredictable ways, we shouldn't neglect the far greater danger posed by our friends and neighbors driving down Main Street.

Horrible news has a way of obscuring merely bad news. So hardly anyone noticed when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, back on Sept. 24, released statistics showing that alcohol-related highway fatalities rose from 15,976 in 1999 to 16,653 in 2000. This 4 percent increase was the first uptick since 1995, interrupting the progress of the last two decades.

The attack on drunk driving has been one of the great successes of our time. That achievement owes a lot to the work of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose bleak tales of lost children convinced Americans it was really unacceptable for anyone to drink to excess and get behind the wheel. Once upon a time, such conduct was treated as harmless roistering. Today, drunk drivers rank only slightly above John Walker in public esteem.

More money has been spent on enforcement. Most states have lowered the blood-alcohol level that qualifies as intoxicated. They've meted out tougher punishment to those caught driving drunk. States have raised the drinking age from 18 to 21 and enacted "zero tolerance" laws on teens who drive after drinking.

Unlike many get-tough laws, these measures worked. Between 1982 and 1999, the number of corpses produced by alcohol-related crashes declined by 37 percent even as overall traffic deaths fell by just 5 percent. Among adolescents, the drop has been even more rapid. Drunk driving used to be the leading cause of death among teen-agers. Not anymore.

But success breeds complacency. Brad Fralick, executive director of the Illinois chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, complains that people sometimes ask him what MADD will do now that the problem has been solved. But if terrorism were killing 16,000 people a year, no one would be quite so cheerful.

One reason for the halt in progress is that the obvious remedies have already been implemented. But there are plenty of other measures that haven't been exploited to their full potential. One of the most effective solutions is old-fashioned sobriety checkpoints. Though they may not yield many arrests, they can discourage a lot of people from taking any chance on drinking and driving.

But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says 13 states conduct no checkpoints at all, and most of the others seldom use them. Only 11 states use them as often as once a week. Yet, IIHS notes, research shows that "frequent, highly publicized checkpoint programs reduced alcohol-related crashes 10-15 percent." That reduction, if accomplished nationwide, would save at least 1,600 lives every year.

Some drinkers can't be deterred from driving blotto. For them, other methods are needed. One is putting them someplace where their need for transportation is minimal. In Illinois, a drunk driver who kills someone and is convicted of reckless homicide can go to prison for anywhere from three to 14 years, during which time the inmate poses no danger on the roads. But MADD says that fewer than half of those convicted actually go to prison.

Fortunately, there are ways to deal with chronic drunk drivers without locking them up. One step taken by the Illinois legislature is to require interlock devices on their cars. The driver has to take a breath test before starting the vehicle, and if he's drunk, it won't go anywhere without a tow truck. MADD's Mr. Fralick says repeat offenders forced to install interlocks are one-sixth as likely to be arrested again as are those without them.

Or you can simply take away their wheels. California is one of the states deducing that a drunk driver with no car is an intoxicated pedestrian. With an estimated 2 million motorists plying the roads with suspended licenses or no licenses, the state decided to start impounding vehicles of unlicensed drivers and confiscating the vehicles of those with drunk-driving convictions. It turns out that offenders who lose their cars are from 24 percent to 34 percent less likely to be caught driving again without a valid license and 18 percent less likely to be convicted of any traffic violation.

Like combating terrorism, stopping drunk driving is a long, slow and tedious process. But it can be won if we don't give up the fight, and if we don't leave some of our best weapons on the shelf.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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