Prince George's and Montgomery county police, along with state and local police throughout Maryland, are hauling drunk drivers into the station house in record numbers this year but the effect on fatal alcohol-related accidents is still uncertain.
Maryland state police report a sharp decline in the number of Christmas holiday fatalities statewide, from 17 to 3. Arrest statistics for the holiday period were not yet available, but for the first 11 months of the year, arrests for driving while intoxicated were up 79 percent over last year.
The holiday fatality statistics are compiled each year for the period between 6 p.m. Dec. 24 and midnight Dec. 27. This year's figures do not include a tragic Christmas Eve afternoon accident involving an intoxicated driver, in which five Montgomery county residents died.
Last July Montgomery began a get-tough policy on drivers who imbibe, and last month one Montgomery police district began setting up random roadblocks to pull wavering motorists over for sobriety tests. As of Dec. 12, 1,235 drivers had been arrested in the county for drunk driving, almost twice the number arrested last year.
Two weeks ago Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan announced a holiday crackdown on drunk driving, and Prince George's police report that drunk driving arrests in the county are up 23 percent this month over the same period last year.
Prince George's Police Chief John McHale hopes to significantly add to the total of arrests with a number of Montgomery-style roadblocks on major thoroughfares this New Year's Eve.
"We are going to set up roadblocks at selected points in the county," said McHale. "If a guy doesn't pass a coordination test on the spot we will haul them into a station." he added.
State police reported only one fatal automobile accident for Prince George's and Montgomery during the official Christmas holiday period. Officials yesterday were awaiting a coroner's report to determine whether alcohol was involved in that accident. There were no traffic fatalities in the two counties during the official Christmas holiday period last year.
Montgomery police report four automobile fatalities in the county so far for December, the same as for the entire month last year.
Despite the inconclusive statistics, police and other officials close to the statewide push to remove drunk drivers for the road say that the effort has been effective. The broadbased push resulted in passage of a series of tougher laws in Annapolis last year.
"I don't have any statistics, but one measure is that we haven't had any major accidents over the holiday," said Hogan aide Wilbert Wilson, chairman of the Prince George's Task Force on Drunken Driving. "Evidently someone got the message," he added.
State Police Lt. Charles Troutman said he could not be sure what caused the statewide decline in Christmas fatalities this year, but added, "maybe it is all the harping on drinking and driving this year."
Driving while intoxicated, the more serious of the drunk driving infractions under Maryland law, carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and/or $1,000 fine. Montgomery States Attorney Andrew Sonner has begun distributing a weekly list of names and sentences of convicted drunk drivers to local media in an effort to focus attention on how drunk driving cases are handled in the courts.
Prince George's Chief McHale said the campaign against drunk driving has struck responsive political chords throughout the state because of grassroot citizen pressure.
"It's obvious," he said. "The people of the state got fed up and put pressure on all levels of government. They're going to keep the pressure on until drunk drivers are removed from the road--and I'm all for it."