The number of alcohol-related accidents, injuries and deaths declined in Northern Virginia for the second year in a row, according to an analysis of 2004 traffic statistics by the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP). At the same time, such incidents continued to rise in the District and parts of Maryland.
Fatalities fell 8 percent from 2003, to 46 from 50 in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, WRAP said. Alcohol-related traffic crashes dropped 4 percent and injuries 7 percent. Alcohol-related accidents and injuries had undergone a steady increase in the years leading up to 2002, and deaths spiked that year, at 53.
Arrests for either driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated, after a decline in 2003, increased by 8 percent, to 6,855.
Kurt Erickson, president of the McLean-based group that seeks to prevent drunken driving and underage drinking in the Washington area, attributed the reductions in Northern Virginia to a number of initiatives, including sobriety checkpoints, tough legislation and public information programs.
He cited the Checkpoint Strikeforce initiative, a three-year-old National Highway Traffic Safety Administration enforcement and public education campaign aimed at getting impaired drivers off the road. Under the program, there is at least one sobriety checkpoint each week in every mid-Atlantic state from July 4 to Jan. 4. This year they were conducted year-round in Fairfax County. Erickson said studies show that when used correctly, checkpoints can cut the number of alcohol-related accidents by up to 20 percent.
Erickson also praised Virginia's checkpoint publicity campaign, which he said deters would-be offenders by creating an increased perception of risk of arrest. A WRAP survey found 10 percent of participants said they would change their behavior if they knew a checkpoint had been set up.
Last year, Virginia devoted a half-million dollars to radio spots about checkpoints. The same campaign provided information on two dozen drunken driving laws that took effect on July 1, 2004, and gave Virginia some of the most stringent drunken driving laws in the country.
A July 2005 WRAP survey found that 65 percent of drivers age 21-35 considered drunk drivers a "serious danger," up 18 percent from the year before.
The laws increased penalties for two groups experts say are responsible for most drunken driving accidents and fatalities: repeat offenders and extremely drunk drivers. They also required that drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or above be sentenced to at least five days in jail; judges previously had discretion and rarely jailed first-time offenders.
"The message of not drinking and driving is getting through to people," said Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office. He said that at some recent checkpoints in Loudoun, none of the drivers stopped were intoxicated.
Erickson noted the need for continued vigilance. "While Northern Virginia's drunk driving incidents may be down, the region is still, on average, locking up more than 130 drivers each week" for driving under the influence of alcohol, he said.