Getting MADD All Over Again

America's effort to curb deaths caused by drunk or drug-impaired drivers has become a crusade for activists, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but some have asked if the crusade has stalled. Statistics reinforce that view. Between 1980, the year MADD was founded, and 1994, alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped by a dramatic 43 percent. Many credit MADD with contributing mightily to that rapid decline, since the organization did so much to sear the issue into the public consciousness. Since then, however, the annual drunk driving death toll has stalled at approximately 16,000 to 17,000. In 2000, alcohol-related traffic deaths jumped by the largest percentage on record, and preliminary reports of last year's data show virtually no change in crashes involving alcohol, which now represent 40 percent of total highway fatalities.

With all this as background, MADD has unveiled a new eight-point action plan to jumpstart the war against what it calls "the most frequently committed violent crime in the nation, drunk driving."

"The good news is that since 1980, an estimated 200,000 alcohol-related traffic deaths have been prevented," said MADD National President Millie I. Webb. "But, the bad news is that since 1994 the war on drunk driving has flat-lined. We are losing ground and losing lives."

What is most frustrating to many of the anti-drunk-driving crusaders is that so much progress was followed by a period in which no progress seems to have been made at all.

"The light that we thought we saw at the end of the tunnel appears to be the headlights of an oncoming crash caused by public and political complacency," added Webb. "The complacent plateau our nation has been riding since 1994 is unacceptable."

To combat what it sees as complacency, MADD convened a National Impaired Driving Summit in January to bring together leading experts to identify the most effective countermeasures to significantly cut alcohol-related traffic deaths and injuries. Based on those discussions, MADD now is urging the nation to embrace the following top eight actions to sharply reduce alcohol-impaired driving:
  1. Resuscitate the nation's efforts to prevent impaired driving by re-igniting public passion and calling on the citizens and the nation's leaders to "Get MADD All Over Again."

  2. Increase DWI/DUI enforcement, especially the use of frequent, highly publicized sobriety checkpoints, which have been proven one of the most effective weapons in the war on drunk driving.

  3. Enact primary enforcement seat belt laws in all states because seat belts are the best defense against impaired drivers. MADD recommends the federal government give states a brief incentive period, followed by withholding federal highway funds from states that do not enact primary belt laws.

  4. Enact tougher, more comprehensive sanctions geared toward higher-risk drivers -- repeat offenders, drivers with high blood-alcohol levels, and DWI/DUI offenders driving with suspended licenses.

  5. Develop a dedicated National Traffic Safety Fund to support ongoing and new priority traffic safety programs.

  6. Reduce underage drinking -- the No. 1 youth drug problem - through improving minimum drinking age laws, adopting tougher alcohol advertising standards and increasing enforcement and awareness of laws such as "zero tolerance drinking-driving" and sales to minors.

  7. Increase beer excise taxes to equal the current excise tax on distilled spirits. Higher beer taxes are associated with lower rates of traffic fatalities and youth alcohol consumption.

  8. Reinvigorate court-monitoring programs to identify shortcomings in the judicial system and produce higher conviction rates and stiffer sentences for offenders. "In this new era of homeland security, we cannot forgo the domestic fight against drunk driving," Webb said. "If the estimated 300 Americans who died last week and the 300 that will likely die this week in alcohol-related crashes suddenly and violently perished all at once, the national crisis that threatens us every day would be clear. [Yet] one by one Americans are needlessly falling through dangerous gaps in the drunk driver control system in nearly every state and community. This tragic problem is 100 percent preventable."

    Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on safety issues and the automobile industry for Driving Today and other publications.