Motorists on the busy Labor Day weekend will face checkpoints established to snare drunk drivers after a year when the number of fatal accidents linked to alcohol increased in several jurisdictions, police said.
The most dramatic increases in drunken driving fatalities last year came in the District, where the number rose by 10, to 34 deaths, and Anne Arundel County, where the total of 25 was more than triple the number recorded in 2002, according to newly released statistics.
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With AAA predicting that D.C. area highways may be busier this weekend than any Labor Day weekend in the past decade, law enforcement officials said checkpoints will be used to police a weekend that usually has more drunken driving deaths than any holiday other than New Year's.
"The checkpoints do work," said Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. "We had more people arrested for drunk driving in this area than reside in Dupont Circle, Falls Church and Glen Echo combined."
"Roughly 45,000 people die every year on the nation's highways, and about a third of those are related to alcohol consumption and driving," said Lt. Homer Rich of the Maryland State Police. "If we can reduce the number of people drinking and driving on our highways, we can also probably reduce the number of people dying on our highways."
Statistics from the Maryland State Highway Administration, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and the D.C. Department of Transportation indicate that drunken driving was blamed for at least half of last year's motor vehicle fatalities in the District, Fairfax City and Fairfax and St. Mary's counties.
Overall, the District experienced a nearly 42 percent jump -- the second-highest increase in the country when compared with the 50 states, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Maryland had a nearly 2 percent increase in the number of alcohol-related fatalities last year, while Virginia had a decrease of 4 percent.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said motorists are not responding to campaigns against drunken driving. "Unfortunately, that's the type of thing that police don't have a lot of control over," Ramsey said. "With as much public education and checkpoints that we do, the responsibility is still on the individual to not drink and drive."
The federal highway safety administration's Checkpoint Strikeforce initiative, a three-year-old campaign aimed at stopping drunk drivers, calls for at least one sobriety checkpoint a week in each mid-Atlantic state from July 4 to Jan. 4.
The agency also is organizing a nationwide crackdown with the slogan, "You Drink & Drive. You Lose." The effort consists of high-visibility enforcement for 16 days and three consecutive weekends, from Aug. 27 to Sept. 11.
The federal agency reported that 42,643 people died in the United States in traffic accidents last year, down from 43,005 the previous year. It also reported that 17,013 alcohol-related fatalities were recorded in 2003, down from 17,524 in 2002.
In Maryland last year, 281 of 649 traffic deaths were alcohol-related. In Virginia, 364 of 943 traffic deaths were alcohol-related, according to the federal agency.
In the region, Prince George's County had the most traffic fatalities in 2003, with 122. Twenty-nine of those deaths were alcohol-related.
Montgomery County had 52 traffic deaths in 2003; eight were alcohol-related.
The District had 67 traffic fatalities in 2003, and about half -- 34 -- were alcohol-related, officials said.
Anne Arundel County's rate of alcohol-related deaths rose from 12 percent in 2002, with seven of 57 deaths attributed to drunken driving, to nearly 38 percent last year, when 25 of 66 deaths were deemed alcohol-related, officials said.
St. Mary's County had the third-highest rate of fatalities in the region that were alcohol-related. Half of its 16 traffic deaths in 2003 were attributed to drunk drivers, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration. In 2002, nearly 18 percent of deaths were alcohol-related.
St. Mary's County Sheriff David Zylak said low staffing in his department -- 1.5 officers per 1,000 people -- and the nature of the rural roads may be factors.
"The speed of our drivers, being that we're a rural county, is greater. The crashes are more severe," Zylak said. With low staffing, he said, "sometimes we become far more reactive than proactive."
Two of three fatalities last year in the City of Fairfax were alcohol-related, and 29 of 61 fatalities -- 47 percent -- were determined to be alcohol-related in Fairfax County, according to the Virginia DMV.
For the Labor Day weekend, authorities recommend that those who choose to drink find a sober person to do the driving or take mass transit or a taxi. "We're going to be out there in force. This would not be a good weekend to drink and drive," said Rich with the Maryland State Police. "Too much to lose, not enough to gain. Don't do it."