Fight drunken driving

Posted April 22, 2009, at 6:45 p.m.

In 1980, Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunken driver. She and other California mothers got MADD — they founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving to fight for tougher laws against drunken driving. MADD is now a national organization and is still fighting.

We’ve made great progress since the early 1980s. Deaths associated with drunken driving have fallen from more than 20,000 to 13,000 and the number of deaths per million miles traveled has dropped by more than half. Maine, too, has made headway: alcohol-related traffic deaths have fallen 30 percent since 1982, despite a rise in miles traveled.

What accounts for this progress?

Let’s start by looking at the groups that cause the most fatalities. Deaths from drunken driving are common among teenagers who drink illegally and drivers under age 35. Drunken drivers tend to be male and to have a history of drunken-driving convictions and drug abuse. Drivers with a high level of alcohol in their blood have a risk of death 385 times that of sober drivers.

Since the early 1980s, federal and state legislators have made major changes in drunken-driving laws, many targeting these very groups. Four specific changes have been highly effective.

First, a federal law passed in 1984 pushed the states into setting age 21 as the minimum legal drinking age. Earlier, most states had allowed drinking at ages 18-20.

The minimum legal drinking-age laws have saved lives. They have reduced drinking by about 16 percent among young adults and also have reduced deaths from drunken driving, according to a study by two University of California economists. These researchers also find that reducing the legal drinking age to 20 would result in about 400 additional deaths a year.

A second effective change relates to the alcohol concentration in a driver’s blood. In the 1980s, a few states determined that if a driver has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 — that is, 0.08 grams of alcohol in a deciliter of blood — he is, under the law, driving drunk. By 2004, the 0.08 limit was the law in all states.

Another step forward was setting lower BAC limits — far lower than the 0.08 limit — for drivers younger than 21, who are of course drinking illegally. In 1983, Maine and North Carolina became the first states to set these lower limits and by 1998 all 50 states, under federal pressure, had passed such laws. Here, Maine led the nation.

A fourth important step was the increasing use of “sobriety checkpoints,” locations where police officers systematically stop drivers to test for alcohol impairment. These checkpoints increase drivers’ awareness that drunken driving can lead to arrest. And they lead to a 22 percent decrease in fatal crashes.

We can and should celebrate the reduction in deaths caused by drunken drivers. But if you believe that 13,000 deaths a year is still far too many — one death every 40 minutes, on average — you’ll want to know what else can be done.

Deplorably, enforcement of drunken driving laws is often not vigorous. We should demand tougher enforcement and backup enforcement with additional resources.

Sadly, sobriety checkpoints are illegal in 10 states; happily, Maine is not one of them. People in those 10 states should lobby to legalize checkpoints.

MADD recommends twice-yearly drunken driving crackdowns, with heightened and very visible law enforcement during the high-risk periods around Labor Day and the December holidays.

In 2007, one out of every five TV alcohol advertisements was placed on programs watched more, proportionately, by youths of 12 to 20 than by adults. And young people with frequent exposure to alcohol advertising are more likely to start drinking than other youth, several studies report. We should demand an end to alcohol advertising on youth-oriented TV programs.

Candy Lightner did not get even — no power could bring her daughter back to life — but she did get mad. Her anger was righteous: the driver who killed her daughter had three prior arrests for drunken driving. Better, she got mad enough to fight the system.

We should applaud Lightner for her determination and we should applaud the many others who have joined the fight against drunken driving. But we also should remember this: now is the time to fight harder.

Edwin Dean, an economist and seasonal resident of Vinalhaven, writes monthly about economic issues.

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