States take innovative steps to curb drunken driving

With the number of accidents rising, they're doing everything from enlisting clergy to sobriety checks.

Faced with one of the nation's highest levels of alcohol fatalities, New Mexico this January started operation Road Predator, designed to crack down on bars that serve people well over the limit and alert local police to habitual offenders in their area.

Louisiana, where half the road fatalities are alcohol related, is asking the clergy to spread the word: Don't drink and drive.

And the Washington, D.C., area is expanding its SoberRide program, to offer free taxi rides until 4 a.m. each night.

These are some of the ways states and communities are hoping to cut down on the holiday alcohol fatality rate. They will have added more sobriety checks and sent more letters to employers reminding them that some holiday parties can be lethal if free rides aren't provided for workers. Even the White House has stepped in, setting a goal of reducing drunken-driving fatalities by 35 percent by 2005.

These efforts are just part of officials' response to new reports that show drunken-driving fatalities and crashes are on the rise after nearly two decades of improving statistics.

In many states, alcohol-impaired drivers now represent 50 percent of all traffic fatalities - up from percentages in the low 40s. With the holiday party season approaching, local officials are bracing for more bad news.

"It's extremely alarming. We need a call to action," says Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) in Washington. "The numbers are very dangerous, and they are moving in the wrong direction."

Only last month, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) issued a report card for the war against DWIs, giving the US a C grade, down from a C-plus in 1999. It's trying to get the issue back on the table with a new motto, "We're MADD all over again."

"It's not given the priority, given the number killed and injured," says James Nichols, a top DWI expert.

For example, despite the threat of loss of federal highway funds, legislators in 16 states have yet to pass new laws lowering the DWI blood alcohol level from .10 to .08. "States resent the heavy-handed approach," says Mr. Adkins. "But it will save 500 lives a year."

At the same time, states are complaining that they don't have the funding for both federal homeland-security mandates and overtime for police sobriety checkpoints. Yet the Washington metro area shows what can happen when such checkpoints are cut back: Arrests for DWIs are at their lowest level in 14 years, and fatalities are on the rise.

"We know that sobriety checkpoints, if done well, are the best tool for local cops," says Kurt Erickson of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP). "They can reduce DWIs by 20 percent in large part because they deter drunk driving."

To help pay the costs, the GHSA is asking Congress to include more money in coming highway funding legislation.

Meanwhile, anti-DWI groups are gearing up for a battle in Congress over a proposal, sponsored by 242 members of Congress, to reduce the federal beer tax. "From the limited research that's been done, we think as that tax goes down, underage drinking and thus underage drinking and driving will go up," says Adkins.

Still, some states are trying to get tough with what resources they have. That's the case with New Mexico, where officials concede there has long been an acceptance of drinking and driving.

Cabinet Secretary Tom English, who answers to the governor for law enforcement, started the state's Road Predator program after reading about too many fatal alcohol accidents. Local police officers are sent lists of people with three or more DWIs. "They were told be aware of who they are, what vehicles they own, and take a a close look because they should not be out on the highways," says Mr. English.

In the first six months of the year, the state arrested 244 individuals - some also wanted for violent crimes. The program also shut down two bars that had shown a pattern of serving alcohol to individuals who were then pulled over for DWIs.

This holiday period, Louisiana intends to get tough with drunken drivers as well. "There will be no tolerance granted. Individuals caught will be sent to jail," says Col. James Champagne of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission. He's also launching the effort to have clergy remind parishioners about the dangers of drinking and driving.

To reinforce the anti-DWI message in southern California, the local MADD chapter has staged a mock sobriety checkpoint, including mock inebriates. "We wanted to show the public what the police put you through," says Cynthia Roark, president of the MADD San Diego chapter.

Sometimes, however, the message can be more effective when drivers hear directly about the effect of drinking and driving. Ms. Roark was giving her anti-DWI message to a group of sailors recently. At first, they were listening politely, but she sensed they weren't quite getting the point.

That changed after she told them she had lost her 18-year-old daughter, Paige, to a drunken driver. "Their attention picked right up," she says. "You could have heard a pin drop."

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