After two decades of decline, drunk driving fatalities are rising
again in the United States - often by disturbing amounts.
As the nation heads into the crucial New Year's weekend,
authorities from New York to Nevada will be setting up sobriety
checkpoints and taking other steps to prevent alcohol-related
But many states are expecting 2003 to end up a bad year, just as
last year did. In 2002, 17,419 people were killed in drunk-driving
mishaps - the third year in a row of at least a modest increase in
Experts attribute the rise to a drain on resources, as new
homeland security mandates have siphoned off personnel and money
from city and state police.
But most critics point to complacency on the part of lawmakers
and the broader public. In the wake of significant progress in the
fight against drunk driving, state governments, they say, have grown
lax in their pursuit of tougher laws. The result is some Americans'
growing confidence that they won't get caught driving drunk.
"People have a tendency to forget and fall into old habits," says
Jonathan Gallow, New Hampshire's assistant attorney general. "We
shouldn't be resting on our successes of the past."
Numbers are going up
The number of drunk-driving fatalities in the US declined
dramatically during the 1980s and '90s, as advocacy groups and
legislatures brought the issue to public attention and wrote new
laws to combat it.
In 1982, there were 26,173 alcohol- related fatalities,
accounting for 60 percent of traffic deaths. The number fell to
16,572, or 40 percent, by 1999, according to the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration. But the recent uptick in incidents
has many advocates worried that legislators and law-enforcement
agencies have become reluctant to address issues related to alcohol
consumption, despite the public-health implications.
"People think that the problem had been solved, but we are now
having to get mad all over again," says Wendy Hamilton, president of
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an advocacy group in Irving, Texas.
The distressing statistics have prompted many states to prepare a
spate of new legislation for 2004.
* In Rhode Island, which had the highest percentage of alcohol-
related fatalities last year, lawmakers have proposed closing a
loophole that allows suspected drunk drivers to refuse a chemical
test without risking criminal penalties. …