By Noel C. Paul
The Christian Science Monitor
After two decades of decline, drunk driving fatalities are
rising again in the United States - often by disturbing amounts.
As the nation heads into the crucial New Year's weekend,
authorities from New York to Nevada will be setting up sobriety
checkpoints and taking other steps to prevent alcohol-related
But many states are expecting 2003 to end up a bad year,
just as last year did. In 2002, 17,419 people were killed
in drunk-driving mishaps - the third year in a row of at least
a modest increase in fatalities.
Experts attribute the rise to a drain on resources, as new
homeland security mandates have siphoned off personnel and
money from city and state police.
But most critics point to complacency on the part of lawmakers
and the broader public. In the wake of significant progress
in the fight against drunk driving, state governments, they
say, have grown lax in their pursuit of tougher laws. The
result is some Americans' growing confidence that they won't
get caught driving drunk.
"People have a tendency to forget and fall into old
habits," says Jonathan Gallow, New Hampshire's assistant
attorney general. "We shouldn't be resting on our successes
of the past."
Numbers are going up
The number of drunk-driving fatalities in the US declined
dramatically during the 1980s and '90s, as advocacy groups
and legislatures brought the issue to public attention and
wrote new laws to combat it.
In 1982, there were 26,173 alcohol- related fatalities, accounting
for 60 percent of traffic deaths. The number fell to 16,572,
or 40 percent, by 1999, according to the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration. But the recent uptick in incidents
has many advocates worried that legislators and law-enforcement
agencies have become reluctant to address issues related to
alcohol consumption, despite the public-health implications.
"People think that the problem had been solved, but
we are now having to get mad all over again," says Wendy
Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an advocacy
group in Irving, Texas.
The distressing statistics have prompted many states to prepare
a spate of new legislation for 2004.
In Rhode Island, which had the highest percentage
of alcohol-related fatalities last year, lawmakers have proposed
closing a loophole that allows suspected drunk drivers to
refuse a chemical test without risking criminal penalties.
Virginia's legislature is preparing 15 antidrunk-driving
bills, including one that would treat drunk driving as a criminal
offense rather than a traffic violation.
A new bill in New Hampshire calls for increasing the
sentence of first-time offenders from 10 days in jail to 30,
and for repeat offenders from 30 days to 180.
Some states believe they can reduce the number of incidents
by beefing up the enforcement of laws already in place.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), for example, recently
ordered that drivers charged with drunk driving be required
to sign a form indicating they know their license will be
suspended or revoked. In the past, the majority of charges
for driving on a suspended or revoked license were reduced
or dismissed because there was no proof drivers had been notified.
"Repeat offenders will not be tolerated and must be
punished," said Governor Richardson in a statement.
Other states are attempting to make better use of information
they already have. Massachusetts, for one, is close to passing
a law that would require repeat drunk drivers to install ignition
locking devices, which prevent the car from starting if a
driver is drunk.
Hitting the airwaves
Still, many policymakers believe the threat of getting caught
is as significant a deterrent as enforcement. This Fourth
of July, for example, arrests in Arizona of alcohol-impaired
drivers fell to 232 from 784 last year, according to the Arizona
Office of Highway Safety. The reason: a two-week media campaign
leading up to the holiday highlighting the crackdown.
Others point to roadside checks, which aim not only to stop
drunk drivers, but also intimidate others from thinking they
can get away with driving under the influence in the future.
It is just such overt messages, say experts, that have fallen
off. "People may not pay much attention to risks to their
health, but they do care about the risks of getting caught,"
says Ilene Harwood, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's
School of Public Health.