A DIFFERENT SORT of hybrid vehicle will be plying the roadways of the Washington area this holiday season, and not one known for its fuel efficiency. T he car — half police cruiser and half taxi — is a publicity stunt: a three-dimensional billboard on wheels. The purpose is to drive home the point to tipplers that they have a choice of conveyances at the end of an evening of carousing: the back of a cab or the back of a cop car.
The “Chooser Cruiser” — so dubbed by sober-driving advocates — is a useful reminder of the costs of drunk driving. More than 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 2010. Around the year-end holidays, when the number spikes, the deadliest hours were after nightfall and, particularly, after midnight, when party-goers stumble to their cars, turn the key and roll the dice.
Nationally, the rate of drunk-driving fatalities has plummeted over the past few decades, as has the percentage of all highway deaths caused by alcohol. That’s the good news, and for it credit should go partly to groups that have raised awareness and pressed for tougher laws, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (founded in 1980) and the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (founded in 1982).
The bad news is that, despite a positive overall trend, nearly a third of all of those killed on the nation’s roads and highways still die in accidents involving an alcohol-impaired driver. That is unacceptable.
Fortunately, state and local legislatures have gotten the message and taken steps to address the problem, some more effectively than others. In the Washington area, there has been particular progress in recent years.
Virginia has one of the tougher laws in the country mandating ignition interlocks — devices that test a driver’s breath for booze before the car can be started. The commonwealth requires that the devices be installed in the cars of all drivers convicted of drunken driving, including first-time offenders. That’s a major achievement. However, the state has adamantly resisted other useful steps, such as forbidding open containers of alcohol in cars and allowing police to stop drivers who are not wearing seat belts.
Maryland, after some resistance, has also strengthened its law requiring ignition-interlock devices, though it remains less stringent than Virginia’s. Ditto the District. Meanwhile, D.C. Superior Court judges are considering establishing dedicated courts to deal with drunk drivers — possibly along the lines of drug courts. That could prevent repeat offenders or those who have avoided treatment from passing unnoticed through the system.
It will be harder not to notice the “Chooser Cruiser” as it makes appearances around the region in the coming months. Endorsed by local police departments and operated by Arlington’s police, it may show up almost anywhere. Take heed.