A D.C. police task force created to give special emphasis to enforcement of the city's drunk driving laws will be off the streets this weekend, for the first time in seven years, because of the District's failure to maintain a driver education program in its high schools, police officials said yesterday.
Police Capt. Wayne A. Layfield, head of the department's traffic division, said he was notified yesterday that the District had spent all the federal money it had remaining from its fiscal year 1981 funding for the task force and that the grant had not been renewed for the current fiscal year.
Last year the task force accounted for approximately 60 percent of about 3,500 drunk driving arrests in the city. Without the federal funds, Layfield said, the task force cannot operate.
Layfield attributed the lack of funds for the task force to a U.S. Department of Transportation stipulation that the city maintain a high school driver education program to be eligible for federal highway safety grants. The District received about $800,000 in such grants last year.
The drunk driving task force, consisting of six patrolmen working overtime Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings specifically to seek out and apprehend drunk drivers, had been funded by a $135,000 annual grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Regional administrator for NHTSA, Frank Altobelli, said that technically the federal government is not withholding the funds, because the District has not completed the necessary application forms to receive them. Even if the city were to do so, it would not be eligible because of the driver education requirement.
The driver education program has been a source of consternation among city officials for several years. Last year the program was supported by a grant from the Government Employees Insurance Co., after school officials, faced with other budget problems, decided not to fund it.
That private funding for the driver education program ran out early this fall, and efforts to find another private sponsor to keep the program afloat during the current school year were fruitless. The school board had included $593,000 for driver's education in its budget request for the fiscal year beginning next fall. However, Mayor Marion Barry has trimmed the board's total request from $289 million to $263 million. School budget officials said driver education likely would be among the first programs the school board would cut to balance its budget.
Yesterday, City Council member Jerry A. Moore, Jr. (R-At-Large) won approval of the council's Transportation Committee of a proposal to earmark a portion of driver's permit fees for a $550,000 trust fund to pay for a high school driver education program.
Moore is expected to ask the council on Tuesday to enact emergency legislation establishing the trust fund as part of a proposed $1.3 million increase in vehicle service fees.
Gary Altman, staff counsel for the Transportation Committee, said Moore had already begun looking for private sources to fund a city-wide driver education program starting in February. Meanwhile, according to Moore's plan, the proposed trust fund would begin to draw revenue.
Federal officials said they were heartened by news of Moore's proposal and, should it become law, would probably authorize the grant money immediately. Barring unforseen circumstances, though, the drunk driving task force will remain idle at least until the council acts.
"What we are looking for is an act of good faith," said NHTSA spokesman Ed Pinto. "As soon as Barry signs it, I think our hands would be free."
Altobelli said he understood the District's dilemma, but was surprised, he said, to hear that the drunk driving program was being suspended.
"I think if they had notified us, we could have worked something out," he said. "It's one of the most important programs in the country."