The forgotten dead

Our view : Marylanders must be shaken from complacency over alcohol-related deaths and pursue comprehensive changes in the way the state deals with impaired drivers

January 18, 2009

One death every 40 hours.

That's the reality of crashes involving alcohol or drugs on Maryland roads. Since 2004, an average of about 220 people are killed each year by drunk or impaired drivers while nearly 5,000 are injured.

The numbers reveal other constants: Young drivers are more likely to be involved, and so are men. Saturday and Sunday evenings and early mornings are the deadliest hours. More than 24,000 will be arrested for driving under the influence.

But here's one of the most troubling numbers of all: Maryland ranks a miserable 35th among states when drunken driving deaths are compared with total vehicle miles traveled.

That's outrageous. There is simply no excuse why so many innocent sons and daughters must be sacrificed to drunken drivers on Maryland roads. It ought to be viewed as one of the most pressing public safety issues facing the state. Yet too often it seems to require a particularly brutal crash, or series of them, to stir public interest. Occasionally, lawmakers will pass some minor change to the law and declare victory.

But the problem is far more persistent and requires a comprehensive approach that involves not only legal reforms but also changes in enforcement, the way information about drivers is handled by state agencies, alcohol treatment programs and the judicial system.

A statewide task force came up with just such a plan and published a report last October that drew little to no attention. But the report ought to be required reading for Gov. Martin O'Malley, his staff and all 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly. The group's 42 recommendations provide the clearest road map to reducing death and injury here that we've seen in some time. They range from relatively minor changes that would require no extra spending to the ambitious and likely controversial. Here are some of the best:

* Track offenders from the point of arrest to determine the success or failure of enforcement and treatment options.

* Upgrade the state's ignition interlock program to reach more first-time offenders; that should ensure violations recorded by these devices have greater consequence.

* Organize more high-visibility enforcement, such as sobriety checkpoints, and publicize it. Police don't need 30 officers (as is too often the current practice) at a time to do this when a half-dozen will do; the point is not to maximize arrests but to send a message to potential offenders.

* Tighten laws regulating underage drinking. Not only should a minor lose his driver's license for six months if caught drinking, but a 16-year-old non-driver caught drinking ought to have his driver's license eligibility delayed for six months, too.

Some of these reforms can be made right away while others will take time. But the most important step is for the state's elected leaders to acknowledge the failure of the status quo and rally Marylanders to this important cause. One death every 40 hours is not acceptable under any circumstances.

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