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Drunk Driving Deaths Down, But Problem Still Looms Large

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Don't Drink and DriveMothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is proud to hear that, according to the new 2010 drunk driving fatality statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drunk driving deaths have been reduced by more than half since MADD was founded 31 years ago.

According to a MADD press release, which quotes its national president, Jan Withers:

New data from NHTSA shows that driving fatalities have dropped 4.9 percent from 10,759 in 2009 to 10,228 in 2010. The first-ever recording of drunk driving fatalities nationally was 21,113 in 1982.

[…] ‘However, one life impacted by this terrible crime is one life too many as there are still more than 10,000 drunk driving fatalities and hundreds of thousands of injuries every year.’ Withers’ daughter, Alisa, was killed by an underage drinking driver in 1992, leading Withers to join the fight against drunk driving and underage drinking.

MADD is working to get every state in the U.S. to enact laws requiring vehicle ignition interlocks for every drunk driver for a minimum of six months, with no exceptions, even first-time offenders, Marilyn Lewis writes on As Lewis writes: “An ignition interlock device is an in-car Breathalyzer. The driver blows into a device the size of a chunky mobile phone. If a measurable amount of alcohol is detected, the car simply won’t start.”

In her article “You can’t drive drunk if your car won’t start,” Lewis writes that data strongly supports the use of such devices to prevent drunk driving. New Mexico has had a law for six years requiring ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers, and that state’s drunk-driver deaths have been cut by 35%. Arizona has a similar law, and its drunk driving fatalities have decreased by 46% since 2007. And a recent review of research by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that interlock devices reduce drunk driving re-arrest rates by 67%. As a result, the CDC recommends the interlocks for all drunk drivers.

But most convicted drunk drivers are not required to use the devices; most states mandate their use only in certain circumstances, such as a very high blood alcohol level, or only after a second conviction. There are so far 14 states that require all convicted drunk drivers to use the interlocks, including Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Lewis writes:

As you’d imagine, wily drivers try to fool ignition interlock devices, getting others — even children — to blow into the device for them. They try using canned air and other evasions.

But device makers keep improving the technology. Devices now include ‘running retests:’ Drivers are periodically required to pull to the side of the road and submit to another test within a brief time span. If a driver flunks the retest, the car keeps running – it would be dangerous to stop it on a highway — and the horn honks and the lights flash to summon police. (Here’s a MADD FAQ on the devices.)

Barron H. Lerner, author of One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900 and a professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University Medical Center, writes on George Mason University’s History News Network (HNN) that he was not surprised to read about the recent drunk driving arrests of Randy Babbit (head of the Federal Aviation Administration, who has now resigned) and Rima Fakih (Miss USA from 2010).

In an article entitled “Miss USA and Mr. FAA: Our Latest Drunk Drivers,” Lerner writes:

In many other countries with very high drinking rates, such as Norway, Sweden, Germany and Australia, drunk driving is fully stigmatized. Getting into one’s car after drinking is seen as reprehensible. In Sweden, for example, dinner party hosts greet guests by asking who the designated drivers will be and providing them with non-alcoholic beverages throughout the evening. In Australia, bar patrons check their blood alcohol levels before getting into their cars and will not drive if their levels are high.

Mr. Babbitt and Ms. Fakih probably aren’t feeling very lucky now but they are. Either of them could have easily been involved in a crash and killed someone. Whether or not they are eventually convicted of drunk driving, let’s hope that they — and the rest of us — have learned a lesson. Once again.

Image by ShashiBellamkonda, used under its Creative Commons license.


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