Crashes, Fatalities Decline, Report Says

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Though the Washington area's roads are growing more crowded, they are significantly safer, according to a new report.

The number of crashes and traffic deaths in the area declined from 2003 to 2004, said the report, which was sponsored by the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, a nonprofit group that fights drunken driving.

In addition, the number of alcohol-related fatalities, crashes and injuries decreased, even as the area's population grew steadily.

In Northern Virginia, the report said, the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped by 8 percent in 2004, part of an overall decline of 9.8 percent in the region. Total traffic fatalities dropped more than 22 percent in Northern Virginia in 2004, better than the overall region's 11.7 percent decrease. The statistics from 2004 were the most recent available to the researchers at Virginia Tech and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments who prepared the report.

The declining numbers came at a time when alcohol-related traffic arrests stayed relatively steady around the region. Alcohol-related arrests dropped 9.5 percent in Northern Virginia.

Almost all the trends in the report were encouraging to Kurt G. Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

"It's the $64,000 question" -- why the numbers of crashes and fatalities have dropped, Erickson said. He theorized that since 1999, "there was a level of complacency on the issue" as campaigns against drunken driving, first launched with fervor in the 1980s, seemed to fade from public perception.

Numbers of alcohol-related crashes began rising in 1999, Erickson said, and "Fairfax and D.C. are a microcosm of what was happening nationally." About two years ago, the number of such crashes leveled off nationally and started heading back down. Now the Washington region is following suit, Erickson said.

"I've got to believe that one of the reasons is that the [anti-drunken driving] message is getting out there," Erickson said. He noted that local law enforcement agencies began participating in a mid-Atlantic region campaign that involved weekly DUI checkpoints and increased educational efforts.

Among the mid-Atlantic states, Erickson said, Virginia "is the state that has spent the most amount of money on public education, and it's also the state that has seen the most drop in DUI fatalities," as officials toughen drunken-driving laws. While Northern Virginia's alcohol-related deaths declined 8 percent, Montgomery and Prince George's counties experienced a 39.5 percent jump in alcohol-related fatalities.

Also in 2004, Northern Virginia saw a 9.5 percent drop in drunken-driving arrests, including a 23.5 percent decrease in Arlington, a 14.6 percent decrease in Fairfax and a 17.2 percent decrease in Alexandria. Those declines balanced a nearly 15 percent increase in drunken-driving arrests in Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, and a 4 percent rise in the District, according to the report.

Other statistics were not all positive. The percentage of all crashes linked to alcohol rose in Northern Virginia and Maryland in 2004. In Northern Virginia, 45.5 percent of traffic fatalities involved alcohol, up from 38.5 percent in 2003. Fairfax's percentage actually dropped, from 46.8 percent to 40.6 percent, but the percentages in Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William rose appreciably.

Erickson noted that the region's population continues to increase steadily. Northern Virginia's estimated population of 1.975 million is 8 percent higher than in 2000, and Maryland's is up almost 5 percent in that time period.

Virginia is spending about $750,000 a year on advertising to discourage drinking and driving, Erickson said. Instead of focusing solely on death or serious injury, the ads, produced by the regional alcohol program, remind younger drivers of the possibility of losing their license if caught driving while intoxicated.

Erickson said the "loss of mobility" message tends to resonate deeply with drivers in the 21 to 35 age group.

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