Has The War on Drunk Driving Stalled?

If there were a disease that suddenly struck 15,000 Americans a year dead on the spot, you can bet there would be a public outcry to do something about it. Politicians would get on the bandwagon, millions of dollars would be expended for research, and a desperate, publicly supported search would get underway to find a cure.

This year 15,000 Americans will suddenly die as a result of one of the nation's biggest public health problems. The big question is: does this nation and its leaders have the will to deal with the problem? Further, will solutions that are already known and understood be implemented with the force that is necessary to make a difference?

The public health problem to which we allude is, of course, drunk driving. It is a particularly cruel problem because it strikes randomly and without warning. Death as a result of drunk driving can happen to any of us virtually any time we are on the road as a driver, passenger, motorcyclist, bicyclist or even pedestrian. It strikes the young, the old, and all of us in between, and individually each of us has little defense against it. Sadly, it seems almost guaranteed that more than 15,000 victims will succumb at the hands of drunk drivers before this year is over.

But, you might ask, haven't we made inroads on the drunk driving problem?

Yes, we have. According to the National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD), there has been substantial progress in reducing drunk driving over the past 20 years. In the early 1980s, the citizen groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) helped focus public attention on the problem. In 1982, President Reagan established the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, and states strengthened their drunk driving laws, in many instances raised the drinking age to 21, and enforced anti-drunk driving laws more vigorously. In short the war against drunk driving became a popular crusade.

That crusade had a very positive effect. From 1982 to 2000, the number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol decreased 34 percent, from 25,165 to 16,653. The number of drivers in fatal crashes with a blood-alcohol count exceeding 0.10 decreased 38 percent, from 16,793 to 10,408. That's a big deal. Think of it: nearly 10,000 people escaped death at the hands of a drunk driver in the most recent year for which we have statistics, 2001, versus the experience in 1982.

The only problem is, the progress against drunk driving has now apparently come to a stop. According to a preliminary report of crash data released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the percentage of traffic deaths that were alcohol-related in 2001 remained unchanged at 40 percent -- 16,652 deaths -- a decreased of only one from 2000.

The study estimated the number of total highway deaths at 41,730 in 2001, down slightly compared to 41,821 in 2000. The number of injuries dropped from 3.2 million in 2000 to 3.0 million in 2001, which sounds positive, but the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles remained statistically the same: 1.50 in 2001, as compared to the 2000 rate of 1.52.

The national drunk driving toll changed very little from 1995 to 1999, rose in 2000 and remained at the 2000 level last year. Other issues seem to have replaced drunk driving as national priorities. Some participants in a recent NCADD "Town Hall Meeting" on the subject characterized drunk driving as an "old issue" that no longer commands the media attention it received 15 years ago.

"The fight against drunk driving has simply stalled, and it's time to jump-start it," said NCADD Chairman Robert Stempel. "Each year since 1994, alcohol-related traffic deaths have hovered between 16,000 and 17,000, while the percentage of highway deaths that have been alcohol-related has stagnated at about 40 percent."

In addition to the shocking death toll, an estimated 600,000 other people are injured each year in alcohol-related crashes. At the current level of drunk driving in America, about three in every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetimes, according to U.S. DOT. While the problem is not making headlines, there is no doubt that drunk driving remains a serious issue.

Which begs the question: what do we do about it?

The answer is two-fold. First, as NCADD noted, most of the hard, day-to-day work of reducing drunk driving occurs at the community level through law enforcement, prosecution and adjudication, probation and treatment, local coalitions, and public information and education through local media and schools. States establish and maintain most components of this drunk driving control system, in particular state laws, police, and courts, while the federal government and private organizations assist and influence state and community activities versus the problem. In short, a lot of people have to put their shoulders to the wheel and grind it out.

But there is another answer as well. The case-by-case, incident-by-incident attack on drunk driving can be infinitely strengthened if we mobilize the national will against this horrendous problem. And to do this, national leadership is essential. Strong national leadership can set priorities, allocate resources, attract media attention, and eventually produce action that combats the problem.

Identifying drunk drivers isn't nuclear science. Enforcing already existing traffic laws doesn't require an advanced degree in physics. But until we have the backbone as a country to attack this problem as we would attack terrorists who kill 15,000 of our citizens each year, the job just isn't going to get done. And the next person to suffer could be you.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is a strong advocate of tough enforcement of anti-drunk driving laws and of educational efforts to help alleviate the problem.