All drivers stopped in the District of Columbia for moving violations of any kind during the holiday season will be asked to take a breath test to determine if they have been drinking, as part of a campaign to cut down on accidents caused by drunk driving.
The D.C. measures, which were announced yesterday by police and will be in effect from Sunday until New Year's Day, are part of an area and nationwide effort to curb the nation's top holiday traffic problem.
"We just want to hammer home the message that if you drink, don't drive," said Robert M. Goldstein, director of D.C. Police Alcohol Countermeasures and Traffic Services. "We're not telling people don't party. Just find alternate means of transportation."
Any driver who refuses to take a breath test in Washington can be arrested, if the police officer deems there is probable cause to believe the driver has been drinking, and asked to take a more complete test for alcohol. If the driver refuses to take that more complete test, he loses his driver's license for up to a year.
President Reagan is expected to kick off a national campaign by declaring next week "National Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Week." And area law enforcement officials are warning motorists who drink and drive that detection methods are more sophisticated and the penalties much stiffer.
In Maryland, Gov. Harry Hughes is expected to announce in conjunction with the Reagan declaration that state police will begin a "sobriety check point" program, which involves stopping all motorists on designated secondary roads and detaining for sobriety tests those suspected of being under the influence of alcohol.
"We're talking about those roads which have a high incidence of alcohol-related accidents that our conventional methods have not impacted upon," said Dan McCarthy, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police. "A detailed analysis of accident data has revealed that on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. there are an awful lot of drunk drivers out there."
The check point program is part of what Maryland law enforcement officials call "Operation Spider," a cooperative effort involving both Montgomery and Prince George's county police departments.
In Virginia, where 44,000 persons were arrested last year for driving under the influence of alcohol, police have already started beefing up patrols along the state's major highways in anticipation of the holiday traffic crunch and the office party crowd.
"Obviously we're not saying which roads are being focused on. But we have a serious problem," said Charles Vaughan, information director for the Virginia State Police. Although Virginia's drunk-driving laws were toughened this past July to include longer jail terms and increased fines, fatal automobile accidents involving alcohol increased from 23 percent of the total in 1981 to 36 percent so far this year, Vaughan said.
According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, about 56,000 people die each year on the nation's highways, and about half of those deaths involve drunk drivers. In September, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) termed the statistics a "national scandal," and urged motorists to use their citizen band radios to report drunk drivers to police.
The new initiatives by police and highway officials come at a time of increased concern about drinking and driving. It was Christmas Eve last year, for instance, when five members of Richard and Martha Proctor's family of Montgomery County were killed in a car crash with Kevin Cooper, 26, a Glen Burnie man who was later found to be driving under the influence of alcohol.
Under the District's drunk driving law, persons arrested with blood alcohol levels at 0.1 percent or higher can be convicted of driving while intoxicated even if no other evidence concerning the defendant's driving, such as weaving or speeding, is presented. In Maryland, the threshold at which a motorist is presumed to be driving under the influence is a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent, and in Virginia it is 0.1 percent.
"There is an increase nationwide by people who have been victims demanding increased and innovative activity to win the war on drunk drivers," said George Reagle, an NTSB associate administrator.
"We are urging state and local jurisdictions not to concentrate strictly on drivers they apprehend but try to raise the perception of risk so that drivers will think twice about driving drunk," Reagle said. "We're trying to change behavior and the key is the belief that if you drive drunk, you will be apprehended and the punishment will be swift and sure."