The war against drunk driving has led to a dramatic increase in arrests in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia since all three jurisdictions stepped up their penalties for the offense.
The campaign against intoxicated driving appears to have been most successful in Maryland where, as of Nov. 1, the number of drunk-driving arrests was up by 41 percent over last year, police said.
In the District, the latest monthly figures show a 33 percent increase in arrests since new laws went on the books in September. No statewide statistics were available for Virginia but drunk-driving arrests by the state police alone were up 30 percent in July, the first month after new drunk-driving laws went into effect.
Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, speaking to an international symposium on alcohol and driving at the Shoreham Hotel last night called for strengthening "public resolve" in the growing campaign against drunk driving.
Robb, who has commissioned a special task force to study drunk-driving laws in Virginia, expressed doubts about the effectiveness of a harshly punitive approach to drunk driving, saying it could "impede the overall goal of deterrence."
This year Robb signed the legislation stiffening Virginia's laws to curb drunk drivers, particularly repeat offenders. Last night he called for a halt to the unacceptably high number of alcohol-related highway crashes, which he said, "killed 70 people a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It is a daily horror we simply cannot afford to forget."
Earlier, Charles Vaughn of the Virginia State Police commented to a reporter: "Obviously, everybody is much more aware of the drunk-driving problem than they had been before, and I would imagine that the new laws in Virginia have simply brought that point out even more."
Bill Clark, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said, "Drunk driving isn't funny anymore. It is deadly serious and we are showing dramatic bottom-line results in our efforts to stop it."
Not only have traffic deaths in Maryland dropped 20 percent -- 574 so far this year compared to 704 at the same time last year -- but the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities is down 30 percent. "That shows we have impacted the group that we targeted on," said Clark. "This is the biggest drop in alcohol-related deaths since we started keeping statistics."
The Maryland statistics do not yet reflect the change in the state's minimum drinking age, which was increased to 21 from 18 in July. Police said the impact of that change is not likely to be felt for several years since the new law applies only to teen-agers turning 18 after July.
A new program this year soliciting reports from citizens about drunk drivers has produced promising results, Maryland police said. So far, police have made 500 arrests from information provided by 3,700 tips.
In D.C., police reported 427 drunk-driving arrests in the first full month since Sept. 24 when penalties for refusing blood tests were doubled and fines for repeat drunk-driving offenders were sharply increased.
Capt. Wayne Layfield, commander of the traffic enforcement branch, said that 10 percent of those arrests were of drivers who registered between .05 and .09 on the blood tests. A new D.C. law presumes that a person with a blood alcohol level of .05 is guilty of driving under the influence, a change that makes prosecutions easier.
In Virginia, state officials said that tougher penalties -- including an automatic 48 hours in jail for second offenders arrested within five years of their first drunk-driving conviction -- have not jammed the local courts as some critics had feared. "The main thing is that the system is holding up," said H. Andrew Rist, administrator of the state-run Alcohol Safety Administration Program. "We are not getting a lot of plea bargaining."
New changes may occur in Virginia next year when the 33-member special commission on drunk driving makes its report. In Maryland yesterday, Gov. Harry Hughes appointed Lieutenant Governor-elect J. Joseph Curran to head a task force on drunk driving that has been monitoring the changes in state statutes.
Police in all jurisdictions credit public awareness with the new campaign against drunk driving.
Dr. Morris E. Chafestz, a member of the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, said at the symposium that opened yesterday at the Shoreham: "If we are successful in mobilizing the public, I believe that in 10 years intoxication -- getting drunk -- will be socially unacceptable, much as smoking has become socially unacceptable in the past decade."