A D.C. police task force created to apprehend drunk drivers was back on the streets last night after federal officials yesterday restored funding for the unit, which had been suspended because the District lacks a driver education program in its high schools.
Police Capt. Wayne A. Layfield, head of the department's traffic division, had been notified Wednesday that the unit had used all of its federal funding for the fiscal year and that no further funds would be forthcoming until the District had a driver education program.
But Layfield said yesterday that a $135,000 federal grant to fund the task force had been restored after meetings between federal and city officials, and that the patrol, which consists of six officers working overtime on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings specifically to nab drunk drivers, had been reinstated.
What had caused the brief lapse in funding was a federal law stipulating that local governments must maintain driver education programs in high schools in order to receive federal highway safety grants -- like the grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) that was the sole funding source for the task force.
Representatives of the D. C. government and the NHTSA met yesterday afternoon to discuss a proposal by City Council member Jerry A. Moore Jr. (R-At Large) that would set up a trust fund to reestablish high school driver education -- which has not been taught in the District this school year --using a portion of driver's permit fees collected by the city.
According to officials on both sides, the Moore measure, passed unanimously by the council's transportation committee Wednesday, satisfied requirements that the District at least make a good faith effort to put a driver education program in place.
"That was enough to strike an agreement and sign off on it," said NHTSA spokesman Ed Pinto. "We were just looking for a way to do it that didn't have us violating the law. There's no way we want to hold up money for drunk driving enforcement. Absolutely no way."
The District receives more than $600,000 in additional grants for highway safety programs. Officials said that funds for those were also released yesterday by the NHTSA so that these other programs -- safety training for school bus drivers, for example -- could resume operations immediately.
District officials had been aware for months that driver education would cease to be taught in city high schools this year for lack of funds and that there was little promise of finding enough money to reestablish the program soon.
As a result, D.C. highway safety officials, who said they understood that federal administrators would not reinstate the safety grants until the driver education stipulation had been met, never completed applications for funds to cover the current fiscal year. They said federal officials requested the meeting that led to yesterday's solution.
Gary Altman, staff counsel for the transportation committee, said Moore will introduce emergency legislation Tuesday to establish the driver education trust fund as part of an overall $1.3 million increase in vehicle service fees.
The school system has not funded driver education for more than a year, when it deleted the program in the face of other budget problems. Last year driver education was provided by a Government Employees Insurance Co. grant which ended this fall.