While considerable public attention is being focused on the sentencing of drunk drivers, only one out of every 2,000 of them is ever caught to begin with, according to estimates of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The figure makes a compelling case for the argument that stiffer sentences are only part of the solution to the problem and that fundamental attitudes toward drinking and driving need to be changed in order to get some of the other 1,999 dangerous drivers off the road.
Montgomery County has mobilized its public and private citizens, its businesses and various other institutions to try to do just that. The Government Employees Insurance Company, for example, runs a program called LIFT (Leave in a Free Taxi), which enables its employes to call a cab at the company's expense anytime they are intoxicated or see someone who is. When a company employe has a baby, GEICO provides the employe with an automobile child restraint device that helps protect the child from drunk drivers.
The county's automobile dealers formed an organization called Dealers against Drunk Driving, which helped provide free cabs home for people who got drunk New Year's eve. "We had 87 people use it New Year's Eve," says Charles Short, who headed the county task force on drunk driving and is chief of the county division on children and youth. "We're going to use it again this New Year's Eve and we're considering doing it for the whole holiday period if we get the funds."
More than 30 businesses have formed a business community team against drug and alcohol abuse, headed by Richard Marriott of the Marriott Corporation, Terry Baxter of GEICO, and Jerry Sachs of the Capital Centre. The businesses, which include Pepco, C&P Telephone, Giant Food, Martin-Marietta, the Board of Realtors and IBM, have sponsored numerous public awareness campaigns around such themes as "friends don't let friends drive drunk."
Last spring, the business team sponsored Project Graduation to curb drinking and driving among high school students. Fifteen of the 22 high schools in the county set up teams that distributed information to parents and students and put up posters in hotel restrooms and cards on tables during prom night.
"Our messages always started off with congratulations, have a great time," says Short. "On the other side of the card, we said remember friends don't let friends drive drunk. If you or your driver become unable to drive, please call this number for a free and confidential ride home." In addition, 7,000 cards with the same message were placed in corsage boxes and tuxedo pockets through florists and tuxedo rental shops.
Three police officers, on their own time, put together a slide show and talk on the dangers of drunk driving, which they showed to 17 of the high schools. It was called "Scared Stiff." "They just stunned these kids," says Short.
County Executive Charles Gilchrist has designated the county-owned liquor stores as information centers about alcohol and driving. GEICO has purchased 20 large charts to be displayed in the stores to help consumers evaluate their blood alcohol level. Small charts will be given out as bag stuffers in the liquor stores, says Short. The county has also set up a hotline where people can report establishments that are selling to minors and inebriated patrons.
During the two-month period of Project Graduation, Montgomery County had no serious accidents involving young people and alcohol, says Short. In 1980, before the crackdown on drunk drivers began, there were 31 alcohol-related fatalities on the county's roads. As of Sept. 30 of this year, there were 10. Arrests for drunk driving have doubled.
The people and institutions of Montgomery County have taken a variety of aggressive, creative approaches to a highly complex problem. As the holiday season gets under way, what has been done there can serve as a model for other people and jurisdictions concerned about alcohol-related accidents which claims 26,000 lives a year. "Drunk driving doesn't begin and end in Montgomery County," says Short. But it is one community that has committed itself to reducing it.