The holiday season should cause deep reflection on the state's poor record for alcohol-related accidents.
A spirit-fueled holiday season is a time to remind Kansans of something about which they certainly have no reason to be proud. A new study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says Kansas ranks 10th in the nation for the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per mile driven in the state.
Our state moved up from 29th in 1998, when there were 84 alcohol-related traffic deaths, to 10th in 2002, when there were 131 such fatalities. Kansas recorded 94 alcohol-related fatalities in 1999, 80 in 2000 and 100 in 2001.
Kansas had the second-largest increase in such fatalities in the five-year study period, trailing only South Carolina. Vermont had the biggest decrease.
Other states with more roads and people had more total alcohol-related deaths over a given period, but when measured against the annual vehicle miles driven in the states, as determined by the Federal Highway Administration, the statistics place the danger of Kansas streets and highways too near the top.
Mary Ann Khoury, president of the DUI Victim Center of Kansas, says part of the problem could be related to war and a troubled economy. "Traditionally, historically, in times of economic struggles or war, the use of (intoxicating) substances increases."
Flimsy alibi. Those may be reasons, but somebody like Khoury should not be at all sympathetic to such a fatal and injurious trend. Zero-tolerance, by all of us, should be the goal.
Highway Patrol Lt. John Eichkorn made an important point. He says the biggest problem "is with the repeat offender, people who are constantly back in the system. ... For that dependent person who, for whatever reason, can't stop drinking, it's very difficult for law enforcement. What we have to do is continue to be as vigilant as possible looking for and removing that impaired driver as quickly as possible."
But no matter how hard officers work or how efficient and effective they are, they are in a losing battle as long as courts allow so many repeat offenders to operate among us. A policy of zero-tolerance also should rule in our courts.
Time and again we learn of horrendous accidents which have been caused by repeat offenders, people whose driver's licenses should have been revoked and who should be banned from driving -- by incarceration if necessary. Recently, two people in Kansas City were killed by a vehicle in which the driver had seven, repeat seven, previous DUI convictions.
People killed by drunken drivers, particularly repeaters, are no less dead than if slain by a gunman on a rampage. Just as guns should be taken from the hands of some people, so should vehicular weapons be denied drunks. There have to be better ways than we have been using to accomplish this.
As we approach New Year's Eve, when many people drink too much and still try to drive, we need to be especially aware of the dangers of alcohol-related accidents in Kansas and try to reduce this shameful toll. We need more designated drivers and friends who refuse to let friends, or even acquaintances, drive drunk. More of us have to stand up and be counted in this terrifying situation.
Kansas loves to be rated in the Top 10 of many categories; but a ranking of alcohol-related deaths per miles traveled isn't one of them.