Kurt Gregory Erickson is president and chief executive of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.
Much attention has been given to the troubling increase in the number of homicides in the city, but we also need to examine the equally troubling increase in the number of drunken-driving deaths in the District.
Data recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that while alcohol-related traffic fatalities decreased in the United States last year, these same and completely preventable deaths increased in the District. In fact, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures show that drunken-driving deaths in the District increased by 33 percent in 2017.
This wrong-way direction in highway safety came despite the Metropolitan Police Department posting a 13 percent increase in driving-while-intoxicated arrests in fiscal 2018, averaging a drunken-driving arrest every seven hours in the city.
While the District can rightly pride itself on being an early adopter of a number of traffic safety policies, such is not always the case when it comes to proven effective countermeasures to impaired driving. For example, the District is in company with just four states — Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — that don’t have at least some felony-level charge for repeat drunk drivers based on the number of prior driving-under-the-influence convictions.
In addition, while the D.C. Council rightly joined the majority of U.S. states in 2016 by enacting a law requiring that DUI offenders in the District outfit their vehicles with an ignition interlock device as a condition of a restricted license, such an offender-paid and technological barrier to future drunken driving has yet to be fully implemented. For while Maryland counts more than 16,000 DUI offenders sentenced to these in-car breathalyzers and Virginia more than 7,000, the District — despite making 1,258 drunken-driving arrests last year — has only 18 people participating in its interlock program.
Think about that. There are more people playing for the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals than are using what Insurance Institute for Highway Safety research has shown reduces drunken-driving recidivism by 64 percent.
It is time for the District to join Maryland, Virginia and a large number of U.S. states in conducting a top-to-bottom review of its efforts to combat impaired driving. The National Transportation Safety Board — in supporting the development of a DUI task force in Maryland in 2007 and citing Virginia’s success with the same apparatus developed in that state in 2002 — testified that, indeed, “task force reviews work” and can serve as an effective means to develop not just legislative but also administrative, judicial, public education and treatment and training-based recommendations to address impaired driving’s continuing scourge.
There is every reason to be concerned about a locality’s rising death rate. Just much, citizens shouldn’t overlook the killer with whom we too often share our roads.