The deaths of three Montgomery County teens in a single-vehicle accident added mournful urgency to Wednesday’s presentation of an annual road safety report at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).
“Three of our youngest citizens were lost in what is almost a textbook unfortunate case,” Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP), said of the crash in Damascus late Tuesday.
Montgomery County Police said a pickup truck left the road and struck a tree in the 25300 block of Burnt Hill Road. The truck’s driver — Jacob Tyler Dennis, 17, of Boyds — and passenger Patrick Andrew Shifflett, 18, of Laytonsville, were pronounced dead at the scene. The other passenger — Cary Mauri’ce Greene, 17, of Clarksburg — died later at a hospital.
The boys were juniors at Clarksburg High School, which held its graduation ceremony Wednesday. The cause of the crash is being investigated, and police could not say if alcohol was a factor.
The new preliminary report from WRAP notes that since last year, alcohol-related or drug-impaired traffic fatalities have increased by 6.17 percent while impaired-driving arrests have decreased by 5.63 percent in metropolitan Washington. The data do not necessarily indicate an increase in impaired driving, just an increase in impaired-driving deaths.
Emphasizing the report’s preliminary nature, Mr. Erickson said that federal data suggest traffic accidents due to drug use other than alcohol are on the rise, a trend that may also be occurring in the region.
“We aren’t willing to wave the red flag yet that this is a problem in the D.C. area, but I’m not too sure how we are going to be able to skirt this issue. So it’s going to be interesting when we go back to see how many of these are drugged driving and how many of these are drunk driving,” said Mr. Erickson, who has led the nonprofit advocacy group for 17 years.
He said the data definitively show that impaired-driving fatalities are up and arrests for DUI and DWI are down, a combination that is significant and unsettling. Each year, regional authorities arrest more than 16,700 persons for driving under the influence — more than the number of residents in Chevy Chase and Falls Church combined, Mr. Erickson said, adding that many offenders go undetected.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates that the average drunken driver has driven drunk more than 80 times before his or her first arrest.
Mr. Erickson recommends more police officers patrolling for drunken driving and more funding to pay for those patrols as a means to reduce DUI and DWI incidents around the region.
“Law enforcement agencies clearly aren’t fully staffed. It’s a major issue just for this reason, that there were more people that are drunk driving than there are men and women in uniform looking for them,” he said.
In addition, he called for more stringent legislation to keep drunken drivers off the streets.
Last month, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed Noah ‘s Law requiring ignition interlock devices for anyone convicted of drunken driving, which members of WRAP consider a move in the right direction. The bill was named for Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, who was killed by a drunken driver while on DUI patrol in December.
Maryland has joined Virginia, which in 2012 adopted ignition interlocks — blood-alcohol testing devices that can lock a vehicle’s ignition. In the District, however, only nine individuals are registered as having an ignition interlock installed in their vehicle, Mr. Erickson said.
WRAP tries to curb drunken driving and underage drinking through public education and advocacy. Its latest report is its 23 annual assessment on regional road safety.