A memorial bench to Katie Gallagher, who was killed last year in a drunk driving accident, is seen on Dec. 21 in Bethesda. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

That morning, when he finally called the morgue in search of his missing daughter, they told him about the “Spanish girl” who had arrived overnight.

She’d been torn up beyond recognition in a car crash, but they figured she was “Spanish” because she had a tattoo in a foreign language just below the neckline.

“It’s not Spanish, it’s Latin,” Gene Gallagher said. “It says, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ ”

The reason Katie Gallagher died was simple, tragic and all too common. Early on New Year’s Day, after a holiday party in College Park, the 18-year-old and a boyfriend got into a car driven by someone she knew only slightly. He was drunk and reckless, pegging the speedometer at 93 mph as they raced along Montgomery County’s hilly, winding Jones Bridge Road at 3 a.m.

They ripped through 30 yards of chain-link fence before they hit the tree.

“She and this other boy simply got in the wrong car,” Gallagher said.

If you are going to die on the road this New Year’s Day, the odds are it’s because you’re drunk or somebody else is. The first day of January outstrips every other heavy-drinking holiday for the percentage of fatalities — 54 percent — blamed on drunken driving. From sunset on New Year’s Eve until the end of New Year’s Day, it’s estimated that 156 people will die and 16,700 will be hurt in drunken-driving crashes across the country.

Overall, the annual number of people dying in crashes caused by drunks is up for the first time after almost a decade of declines that were driven by tough law enforcement and harsh penalties.

“This is very disheartening,” said Jan Withers, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “And what is more alarming is that there was also a significant increase in drunk driving fatalities during the holiday season.”

With overall traffic deaths increasing — and almost a third of them tied to alcohol — there has been a federal push for states to mandate that first-time offenders use ignition interlock devices to prevent them from driving drunk again. The devices, which require that drivers blow into them before their car will start, are mandatory for all convicted drunk drivers in Virginia and 17 other states. They are required in Maryland and three other states for those convicted with a high blood alcohol level. Mandating their use is left to a judge’s discretion in the District and 11 states.

There were 375 traffic deaths involving drunken driving in the District, Maryland and Virginia in 2012, the latest year for which federal numbers are available. More than a quarter of that number — 101 — were in the District or the commuter counties around it.

Katie Gallagher and her friend, Nick Clayton, 20, were among the very first to die that year.

Having heard no word from Katie on New Year’s Eve, Gene Gallagher called up her Facebook page the next morning to find a fresh posting from one of her friends.

“R.I.P., Katie,” it said.

He began frantically calling hospitals. Then someone suggested he check with the morgue in Baltimore.

The kids had carried their beers along when they piled into the white Chevrolet TrailBlazer after the College Park party slowed down a couple of hours after midnight. Clayton rode shotgun in the front seat, a beer at hand. Katie Gallagher squeezed in right behind him, sharing the back seat with two other teenagers. More beer was opened.

Behind the wheel, and drunk, was Roderick E. Brice II. At 22, Brice was the only one on board who was old enough to drink legally. Along the way in life he had built an arrest record on drug possession, theft, burglary and driving with a suspended license.

His friends called him “Buster.”

“I don’t believe she knew the driver,” Gallagher said. He asked one of the survivors, “ ‘Why didn’t you take away his keys?’ and he said because Buster was known as a ‘safe’ drunk driver.”

Brice wasn’t that night, the police report shows.

He negotiated a chunk of the Capital Beltway without drawing the attention of any of the police officers who had stationed their cruisers with lights flashing to get drivers to slow down and pay attention.

But after the SUV left the highway and turned onto Jones Bridge Road, things got wild. Police said Brice was driving 85 to 90 mph as he whipped the vehicle around curves and down hills.

He finally lost control near Lancaster Drive, hitting the curb, crossing the sidewalk, uprooting the chain-link fence and plowing the vehicle into a tree so hard that the impact caved in the right side of the SUV, where Nick and Katie were sitting.

Brice, who will turn 25 in a couple of weeks, is serving consecutive seven-year terms at the state prison in Hagerstown after pleading guilty to two counts of manslaughter by motor vehicle.

“I’m sure that will sober him up,” said Gene Gallagher, who has become an expert on drunken driving in the past two years.

“There are 22,000 DUIs a year in the state of Maryland. There are a lot of countries that have zero tolerance, so why do we allow .08” [blood alcohol content]?” he said. “Point-zero-eight invites people to drink and drive, and how do you know when you cross the line of .08?”

A memorial bench was placed near the crash scene, and friends gather there, leaving flowers and trinkets. The bench and the site where Katie died are little more than a half-mile from Gallagher’s real estate office.

“Even to this day, I think it’s not true, it can’t be true,” he said. “She used to text me a lot, and it’s surreal — I find myself still waiting for a text from her.”

In addition to his daughter, the crash cost Gallagher a grandchild. Katie was pregnant when she died.

“I’ve asked parents who have lost children when the pain stops, and the answer is never, ever,” Gallagher said.