Washington — Your chances of being killed in a traffic crash involving booze depend partly on the state where you're driving, a government study shows.
South Carolina, Montana and Louisiana have the highest rates of alcohol-related traffic deaths, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study released Wednesday.
Nationally the rate of deaths in alcohol-related crashes dropped by more than half since 1982 - from 1.64 per 100 million miles driven to 0.63 per 100 million last year - according to the federal government's most comprehensive look at drunken-driving accidents in the past two decades.
NHTSA tracked the locations of fatal alcohol-related accidents down to the county level. While the death toll is higher in the most populated counties, the state-by-state death rates show that gains in the fight against drunken driving have been widely disparate across the country.
Drivers in South Carolina, for example, are more than three times more likely to die in alcohol-related traffic accidents than drivers in Vermont or New York. Those states have the lowest death rate behind Utah, which has a large Mormon population and closely controls the sale of most alcohol.
Puerto Rico's alcohol-related death rate is higher than any state's - 1.38 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled during 2001. Besides South Carolina, the states of Montana and Louisiana and the District of Columbia also have rates of more than one death for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the state.
NHTSA compiled the state-by-state statistics to encourage states at the bottom of the rankings to get tough on drivers who drink. The agency and law enforcement nationwide say they will crack down on drunken and drugged drivers with sobriety checkpoints and increased patrols Friday through Jan. 5, the kickoff to a yearlong effort to curb impaired driving.
Jeffrey Runge, the agency's administrator, said socially responsible drivers had learned not to drink before getting on the road, but public safety messages had been ignored by others. Those who continue to drink and drive are typically young men who guzzle beer until they have a very high blood-alcohol level and then refuse to wear a seat belt, he said.
"We know who they are, but they're a very recalcitrant group of people," he said. "That's why law enforcement really is the only countermeasure we've got that will be effective with those people."
NHTSA defines a fatal alcohol-related accident as any that occurred where a driver, pedestrian or cyclist had alcohol detected in their blood. In most states, it is legal to drive with less than 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content.
In 1982, U.S. traffic deaths connected to alcohol use totaled 26,173, or 60 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths.
In the early 1980s, President Reagan formed a Presidential Task Force on drunken driving, Congress required states to raise the drinking age to 21 and the newly formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving began pushing for tougher anti-drinking legislation nationwide.
Tougher seat belt laws and improvements in vehicle safety and emergency medicine also helped lower numbers. Deaths linked to alcohol use fell nearly every year in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching a low of 16,572 in 1999.
The number of people killed in alcohol-related crashes has risen slightly of late. Last year, 17,448 were killed, accounting for 41 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths.