Washington Amid indications that a federal goal of reducing alcohol-related highway deaths will not be met, new initiatives are being proposed to stop hardcore drinkers from getting behind the wheel.
The recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board follow significant progress made by state legislatures and law-enforcement agencies over the last 15 years to combat drunken driving, as well as tougher federal measures passed by Congress in 1998 that are now being implemented. But a two-year safety board investigation, released last week, has determined that without a comprehensive national program, the Transportation Department's goal to cut alcohol-related fatal crashes to 11,000 or fewer annually by 2005 will not be achieved. Last year, 15,794 people died in accidents where alcohol use was a factor.
The number of traffic fatalities linked to alcohol has declined from 23,646 in 1983, but the improvement has leveled off at the current annual rate since about 1993, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For the last several years, alcohol use has been a primary factor in nearly 40 percent of all fatal traffic accidents.
The Fourth of July ranks as one of the deadliest times of the year. With an extra long holiday weekend this year, more than 300 people are expected to die in alcohol-related crashes, federal authorities said. To minimize the carnage, 39 states and the District of Columbia have been operating sobriety checkpoints and assigning extra officers to arrest drunken drivers.
Beyond such measures, however, the safety board suggests that a renewed campaign of strict penalties and treatment for addiction focus on hardcore drinkers, defined as motorists who have had at least two convictions for driving while intoxicated in the previous 10 years or who test positive for a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent or greater. The threshold for being legally drunk is 0.10 percent in most states, while 18 states, including Kansas, and the District of Columbia have lowered the level to 0.08 percent.
The hardcore drinking drivers, who account for less than 1 percent of drivers on the road on a typical weekend night, are involved in 40 percent of alcohol-related fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The safety board identified five key areas in which uniformity among the states is needed. The board formed a model program focusing on:
Legislation Enacting laws that carry tougher sanctions and mandatory treatment for alcohol addiction and eliminating community service in lieu of jail time.
Enforcement Conducting more frequent and highly visible sobriety checkpoints and adding resources to ensure that driver's license suspensions are being upheld.
Vehicle sanctions Requiring ignition interlocks for convicted drunken drivers and imposing penalties that include vehicle impoundment and forfeiture.
Prosecution Limiting plea-bargaining and eliminating so-called diversion programs.
Judicial measures Imposing a combination of jail and treatment upon conviction, or home detention with electronic monitoring, followed by intensive supervision during probation.