Though in many ways 1984 was the year of the Anti-Drunk Driving Campaign, some fear that after the final choruses of "Auld Lang Syne" are sung, police will be tallying more alcohol-related traffic accidents this New Year's weekend than last.
"The publicity is at a peak," said Thomas Crosby, spokesman for the American Automobile Association. He said he couldn't remember in the "last 20 to 30 years" when there were as many radio and television broadcasts warning against the hazards of driving after drinking.
But Crosby said that since Friday, there already have been about a "half dozen fatal accidents involving alcohol" in the Washington area. Last year over the three-day weekend there were none.
Crosby blames the increase on this year's four-day weekend and unusually warm weather.
Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have said that this New Year's, partygoers are more aware than ever before that mixing drinking and driving can be far more deadly than the worst Jan. 1 hangover. But, they add, knowing that 274 persons died last New Year's weekend in traffic accidents nationwide doesn't distance people from the parties or bars.
At The Pavilion at the Old Post Office, where a crowd of 50,000 is expected to be on hand to cheer the lowering of a giant postage stamp from the clock tower at midnight, restaurants and taverns will be pouring the champagne and pulling plenty of pints of beer until 2 a.m.
"New Year's Eve is the one night that everybody has an excuse to celebrate, and usually that means drinking," said Hunter Wolkoff, the organizing director of the Washington MADD chapter. While liquor consumption remains as popular as in the past, he said, the "real big change this year is the swelling number of people" who are warning others not to turn over the ignition if they have been drinking.
Dozens of concerned groups are offering free taxi rides tonight for those who realize that their liquored merrymaking impairs their driving.
SoberRide, sponsored by the Washington Regional Alchohol Program, AAA and several insurance companies, has reserved a fleet of cabs to answer the 500 to 600 calls expected to come this evening.
The holiday taxi service, offered between Dec. 10 and Jan. 2, already has accommodated about 1,200 people, said James Myhre, a superviser for SoberRide.
Myhre said one of the best ways to lick the drunk-driving problem is to spread the responsibility: "It's society's problem because the guy who's drunk isn't in the position to help himself. A friend has got to care."
Those who do choose to drive will have to contend with beefed-up police forces monitoring the roads. Spokesman Thomas Moore said Maryland state police will be setting up sobriety checkpoints and adding patrol units in an effort to cope with the anticipated drunk-driving problem.
Virginia and District police also will add special patrols tonight, particularly to monitor well-traveled highways and interstates, police spokesmen said.
"What a lot of people don't realize is that you don't have to be down-and-out drunk to be caught under the influence," said Maurice Hall, a D.C. police officer assigned to the alcohol enforcement unit.
In the District, a reading of .05 percent alcohol in the bloodstream is considered driving "under the influence"; for the average person, that state could be induced after as few as two beers, Hall said. For first offenders the charge carries a maximum fine of $500 and six months in prison.
In all three jurisdictions, a driver is charged with the more serious traffic violation, driving while intoxicated, if he has .10 percent alcohol in his bloodstream.
To accommodate many of the New Year's Eve revelers at the Old Post Office, Metro has expanded its hours and will continue to run until until 2 a.m.
Said Crosby: "The whole point is, we want as many people as possible to be around for the New Year."