DUI Fatalities Decrease by 7 Percent in US

Posted on December 8th, 2009
Posted in Drunk Driving

From 2007 to 2008, drunken-driving fatalities have decreased in several states that target drunk driving with aggressive enforcement efforts. This news came minutes after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other officials launched a national holiday crackdown on impaired driving.

“Our feeling is in states where you have real tough law enforcement, where the law enforcement people are no-nonsense, those are the states that have been able to reduce their numbers," LaHood said. "In states where they don’t have tough law enforcement, or they don’t do it as aggressively as other states, the numbers are not that good."

USA Today’s Larry Copeland writes that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the drunken-driving fatality rate in the USA declined about 7 percent from 2007 to 2008, continuing a decades-long drop. Drunken-driving deaths have been trending downward since 1982, two years after Mothers Against Drunk Driving began focusing attention on the issue. There were 11,773 such fatalities in 2008, a 44% drop from the 21,113 in 1982, according to NHTSA and U.S. Department of Transportation data.

LaHood had a simple message for American motorists during the holiday season: Have fun, but don’t get behind the wheel if you’ve been drinking.

LaHood, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, and John Saunders of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) launched the annual national winter holiday crackdown on impaired driving. Thousands of law enforcement agencies across the USA will be targeting drunken driving in the campaign, which runs through New Year’s Day. Each state has its own version of the campaign.

Highway safety experts such as Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety policy and research for AAA, say such high-profile crackdowns are highly effective because they’ve been proven to deter drunken driving.

"The real purpose isn’t really to capture or punish drunk drivers," Nelson said. "They’re meant to deter drunk driving altogether…It creates the perception that people are likely to get caught if they drive drunk. What makes enforcement campaigns like the national crackdown so valuable is the clear message we send to the public—that law enforcement is actively looking to get drunk drivers off the road."

In Vermont, the drunken-driving fatality rate dropped 45 percent from 2007 to 2008—the nation’s largest decline. Vermont officials have noticed anecdotal evidence that liquor sales in bars drop while alcohol sales at liquor stores go up during DUI crackdowns around major holidays, said Betsy Ross, spokeswoman for the Vermont Governor’s Highway Safety Program. "So people are drinking at home,” Ross explained.

In Kansas, the DUI fatality rate jumped 36 percent from 2007 to 2008. Officials see the increase as a statistical anomaly. "One year does not make a trend," said Chris Bortz, grants manager for the Kansas Department of Transportation. He said that the state aggressively targets drunken driving and that the rate had dropped two of the previous four years before 2008.

Saunders, an executive board member of the GHSA, said some states are using new media and high-tech approaches to spread the message: Delaware, Michigan, and Rhode Island are among states using the social networking site Twitter to get out the DUI message; Colorado kicked off its campaign with an iPhone application (“R-U-Buzzed”) that estimates blood-alcohol content; and Washington state’s campaign includes paid messages on television, radio, and online gaming ads on the game system Xbox 360 Live.

"We know the holidays lead people to do more drinking, and do more drinking and driving," LaHood said. "We’re just saying, if you drink, call a cab, catch a ride with a relative, catch the bus—but you can’t get behind the wheel."

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