States Work to Curb Drunk-Driving Fatalities ; Closing Loopholes and Enforcing Laws Are at the Top of the Agenda for Stanching a Rise in Drunk-Driving Deaths

Article excerpt

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 accidents.

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 fatalities.

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. …

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