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States scramble to curb rising DUI fatalities

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 accidents.

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.