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Americans are still way too tolerant of drunken driving

This bench was turned into a memorial to Kaitlin Gallagher, who was killed in a drunk-driving accident Dec. 21, 2013, in Bethesda, Md. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

More people are dying on the nation’s roads these days because the economy is going gangbusters and gasoline is cheap.

That’s the line Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and his staff have been pushing especially hard, as new statistics show the death toll on the nation’s highways has been increasing. Of course, it’s indisputable, too: People are driving more these days, and the more you drive, the more likely you are to have an accident.

But the Transportation Department has focused only on the upside of the downside here. Maybe it’s a coincidence that this is an election year, but there are other reasons people are getting killed and maimed that don’t have anything to do with the rosy economy and $2 gas. One is sky’s-the-limit speeding on the nation’s highways. Another is distracted driving, now that only the friendless aren’t talking or texting as they drive. And then there’s booze.

What they have in common is that only government action is going to change them.

Texting, speeding and distractions are killing more of us every year

The National Safety Council (NSC) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) both say that the United States could do more to combat alcohol-related crashes. Despite some success lowering the percentage of alcohol-related highway deaths to 29.2 percent of all traffic fatalities, that still means that 10,265 people were killed in 2015. That’s a 3.2 percent increase over 2014. It’s still almost a third of all traffic deaths.

“When you look at the fatalities, it’s almost unbelievable that, as a country, we’re willing to let it continue to happen,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and chief executive of the NSC. A few decades ago, about half of all traffic fatalities were alcohol-related, she said. Efforts to combat drunken driving have lowered that to about 30 percent. But then progress slowed, and that rate has persisted for years, Hersman said.

One step forward would be universal laws requiring all offenders arrested for driving under the influence to have an interlock device installed on their vehicle. Interlock devices require a person to blow into a device, similar to a Breathalyzer, that determines whether there’s alcohol in the person’s system. If the person has been drinking, the device prevents the vehicle from starting.

“There’s a mountain of data now that show interlock laws work,” J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer at MADD, said Tuesday.

All 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, have some form of law on interlock devices, according to MADD and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Since West Virginia’s law was enacted in 2008, drunken driving deaths there have plummeted by 50 percent, MADD says. Other states have reported dramatic results, too.

But many impose the measure only on repeat offenders or on offenders who had high levels of alcohol in their blood. Only 23 have laws that require all offenders to use them, the NCSL says.

In 2012, Virginia became the first in the Washington area to require first-time DUI offenders to use interlock devices, and some argued that the law was too harsh. Maryland — whose legislature has long been under the thumb of trial lawyers, including powerful committee chair Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) — only this year passed a law expanding the use of interlock devices despite years of trying. The measure — called “Noah’s Law,” in honor of a Montgomery County police officer killed by a drunk driver at a DUI checkpoint — requires all DUI offenders to use the device. Previously, the devices were used only for those who had a .15 blood-alcohol content or higher.

MADD, which has been leading the fight against drunken driving for more than three decades, says interlock laws work best when they require the devices to be installed in a first-time offender’s vehicle. The devices also should be installed as soon as practicable after an arrest, and they should remain in place for at least six months. The devices should be removed only after the offender has demonstrated step by step that he has changed his ways, Griffin said.

“These laws are really critical for states to pass,’’ Griffin said.

Meanwhile, a consortium of automotive manufacturers is working on technology that could put a similar device in everyone’s car. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety is a research program searching for workable technology that passively detects whether a driver is impaired. The project — which is backed by the federal government and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, among others — wants to create vehicles that detect alcohol either from a driver’s breath (and only the driver’s breath) without the driver breathing into a device, or from a driver’s fingertips.

In the meantime, both the NSC and MADD say law enforcement needs to press on with high-visibility campaigns to identify and arrest drunk drivers. Although about 1.1 million people were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in 2014 — which sounds like a lot — the odds are very much in favor of the drunk driver. On average, people drive drunk about 80 times before they get caught, MADD says. And yet there’s a widespread perception that some states have pulled back on DUI enforcement campaigns, such as sobriety checkpoints, for reasons that aren’t clear, Hersman and Griffin said.

“You can drive from D.C. to California and halfway back, drunk, before you get caught,” Hersman said.

Unlike alcohol, it’s tough to set DUI limits for marijuana

Hersman also believes the United States needs to adopt a lower legal threshold for intoxication. MADD disagrees; Griffin said the .08 BAC level is an accurate indicator of when alcohol impairs one’s driving. But both groups agree the nation needs to work harder to keep impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel of a car.

“Just from our perspective, the increase is frustrating because we all know what to do,” Griffin said.

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