Monday, May 26, 2008

U.S. drunken-driving rates stagnate

Experts seek new ways to reduce alcohol-related road fatalities as the nation's annual death toll of about 17,000 hasn't budged in over a decade.

With drunken-driving rates stuck at a level that has changed little over the past decade, experts are recommending new approaches that may offer the best hope of reviving the great gains made against DUIs during the 1980s and early 1990s.

One method relies on technology: Stopping drunks from driving before they can get started. Another is treatment: Making hard-core drinkers not only serve time but also helping them overcome their addictions.

"It's now becoming increasingly difficult to make (the statistics) go down," said David Hanson, a retired sociologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam who has studied alcohol and drinking for more than 40 years. "If we keep trying the same old approach, it's probably not going to make much of a difference."

The old approach, stricter laws and the efforts of advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving paid off significantly, according to a study released this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That report also cites the aging of the driving population and an increase in female drivers, who are less likely than men to drink and drive.

But as in 1997, 20 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes are legally drunk, and the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths has not budged. It's as though the country is stuck, forced to live with an annual death toll of about 17,000 people.

In a possible sign of resignation, some states have even raised the idea of relaxing some strict drinking laws that are widely credited with saving lives. Discussions have popped up recently in several states, including South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin, about lowering the legal drinking age to 18 under certain circumstances.

Nicole Nason, administrator of the highway safety administration, would consider that a disaster.

"The challenge is how do we drive the numbers down even further, knowing that we can't give an inch in terms of aggressive law enforcement or targeted advertising or working with our advocacy partners," she said. "How do we do even more?"

The most widely accepted answer is to turn to technology, namely alcohol ignition interlock systems. These devices, installed in the cars of convicted drunken drivers, link a blood-alcohol monitor to the ignition. If the driver has been drinking, the car won't start.
source: Chicago Tribune

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