ALCOHOL abuse cost Americans nearly $92 billion in 1991 - money drained out of the economy through lost productivity, alcohol-related crimes, and treatment programs. By 1997, that cost is expected to rise to $124 billion, a 35 percent increase.
These sobering figures come from a new study by researchers at the University of Southern California. The report's one bright spot is that the number of alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents dropped about 60 percent between 1985 and 1991. Equally encouraging, the researchers forecast a 90 percent decline by 1997, largely because of successful publicity about the dangers of drinking and driving and because of stiffer drunken driving laws.
Yet it is too early to relax vigilance. Tragedies such as the recent death of Sen. Strom Thurmond's daughter Nancy, who was struck by a drunk driver as she crossed a street, serve as reminders that the quest for alcohol-free roads is not over.
In some cases, tough penalties must be made even tougher. As one way of deterring repeat drunken drivers, Gov. William Weld (R) of Massachusetts is calling for legislation that would increase the minimum sentence after five offenses from six months to five years. It also would increase the maximum fine from $1,000 to $50,000 and revoke drivers' licenses for life after a fifth conviction.
Experts on alcohol abuse warn that even the toughest sanctions will not deter hard-core drinkers. One Massachusetts man was arrested last month for the 20th time on drunken driving charges. Although his license was revoked in 1973, and although he had just been released from prison for a previous conviction, he defied the law.
Even if people like this seem beyond education, punishment of repeat offenders may be part of the education necessary to prevent the next generation from mixing alcohol and automobiles. Keeping innocent people from being injured or killed because of alcohol abuse remains an important national goal, both on and off the highways.