State's Decline In Drunken-driving Deaths Outpaces U.s.

December 08, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser , michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Deaths from drunken driving fell in Maryland last year, exceeding a nationwide trend and placing the state among the 10 with the lowest rate of fatalities.

Maryland's improvement - from 178 deaths in 2007 to 152 last year - vaulted it into the top tier of states in terms of fewest drunken-driving fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The agency released state-by-state figures Monday showing declines in 40 states, including Maryland, where the fatality rate dropped 12.5 percent, surpassing the national decrease of 7 percent.

"We consider it really good news," said State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, who has spearheaded the O'Malley administration's efforts to fight drunken driving.

Pedersen attributed the decline in drunken-driving deaths to a combination of measures, including education, stepped-up enforcement, alcohol treatment programs and more vigilant judges.

But Caroline Cash, executive director of Maryland MADD, said the numbers show her organization has a long way to go.

"We still have tremendous work to do if we lost 152 people. That's three people a week," she said.

Maryland was one of 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, with an alcohol fatality rate below 0.30 per 100 million miles - one of four tiers the agency breaks out in its report. Maryland's rate of 0.28, down from 0.32 in 2007, put it in a tie for ninth among states with the lowest rate of drunken-driving fatalities.

Drunken-driving fatality rates ranged from a low of 0.16 in Vermont to a high of 0.84 in Montana.

The federal agency focuses on the mileage-based rates rather than number of fatalities to account for varying levels of driving in different states.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released the figures as part of the kickoff of a nationwide crackdown on drunken driving over the holiday season. Maryland's plans for its role in the "Over The Limit. Under Arrest" campaign include sobriety checkpoints, saturation patrols and free cab ride programs.

Alcohol impairment generally accounts for about one-third of highway deaths in the United States. But in Maryland last year, drunkenness accounted for 26 percent of the 591 deaths on the state's roads - down from 29 percent the previous year.

Pedersen, who recently chaired a state task force on drunken driving, said the state's education efforts have been focused heavily on males between the ages of 20 and 34. "They're the highest-risk group right now in terms of what statistics show," he said.

Pedersen said his agency's safety office has worked closely with police on such well-publicized efforts as Checkpoint Strike Force. Under that program, he said, 60,000 motorists were stopped at checkpoints last year - raising the visibility of law enforcement even if only a small percentage were arrested.

The state's judges have also shown a greater willingness to take steps to keep offenders from repeated drunken driving by ordering them to install devices in their vehicles that won't let them turn on their engines if alcohol is detected.

"Ignition interlock devices are one of the best ways of doing that," Pedersen said.

In response to the report issued by the task force Pedersen led, the General Assembly passed four bills this year to tighten the state's laws against driving under the influence of alcohol. While the bills were more incremental than dramatic, Pedersen said the publicity they generated help in keeping the issue in the public eye.

"The more we can be keeping this issue in the news and the more awareness we can have of the consequences of drinking and driving," he said, "the more we can help people make the type of decisions they need to make."

Maryland MADD will be helping to keep the drunken-driving issue in the spotlight next year as it pushes its No. 1 legislative priority: a bill that would require all those found to have driven while intoxicated - including first-time offenders and those who receive probation before judgment - to install ignition interlock devices.

"Until there are real consequences to the act of driving drunk, people will continue to do it," Cash said.

Similar proposals have been thwarted in the past - in part because of opposition from the alcoholic beverage and hospitality industries. But Cash said legislators will be especially attuned to voter sentiment because 2010 is an election year.

With the Christmas and New Year's holidays approaching, government officials and activists are planning a series of events designed to focus attention on the drunken-driving issue.

They include a Maryland Remembers ceremony at the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis Wednesday, at which Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and other top state officials will join surviving family members of victims of drunken driving.

At that event, Brown will announce an executive order signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley establishing a Maryland Alcohol Safety Action Program Committee with the specific mission of recommending the best ways to keep first-time drunken drivers from becoming repeat offenders. The panel, based on a similar program in Virginia, will include legislators, transportation and health officials, law enforcement and substance abuse treatment professionals, among others.

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