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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sobering message aimed at drunken drivers

Advertiser Staff and News Reports

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Although the number of fatalities involving drivers with a blood alcohol content of at least .08 dipped only marginally for the nation as a whole, the changes in 2005 compared with 2004 were more dramatic in many states and the District of Columbia.

The five states with the biggest declines last year:

  • Utah: 50.7 percent down from 2004

  • Maryland and Rhode Island (tie): 23.7 percent

  • Massachusetts: 20.7 percent

  • Oregon: 19.3 percent

  • Connecticut: 18.8 percent

    Jurisdictions with biggest increases last year:

  • Vermont: 40 percent jump from 2004

  • Delaware: 35.9 percent

  • North Dakota: 32.4 percent

  • District of Columbia: 30.8 percent

  • Hawai'i: 20.5 percent

    Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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    Motorists aged 21 to 34 continue to drink and drive more than those in any other age group. Federal officials said yesterday they are going to fight back with an ad campaign that emphasizes the threat of prison and with an unprecedented crackdown on drunken drivers through Labor Day.

    The campaign has special relevance in Hawai'i, where fatal crashes involving alcohol increased 20.5 percent last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The increase was the fifth highest in the nation. In Hawai'i last year, 67 of the 140 traffic fatalities involved alcohol.

    "The numbers vary from year to year, but it's a continuing problem," said Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa.

    "Everyone from the DOT to police to MADD are trying to do something about it. The government's role continues to be educating the public about the dangers, but ultimately it's the responsibility of the people who get behind the wheel to make sure that they use common sense and act safely."

    As part of the national campaign, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, took out radio and TV ads that began airing yesterday in English and Spanish on programs that appeal to 21- to 34-year-olds.

    The cause for alarm: A total of 11,921 motorists who were involved in fatal crashes last year were found to have a blood-alcohol content of .08 or higher; nearly half of those people were between the ages of 21 and 34, NHTSA statistics show.

    "That particular demographic is more at risk," said Nicole Nason, NHTSA's administrator, after announcing the campaign at a police academy in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md. "They have a higher likelihood, or frequency, to drink and drive. They're also the least likely to wear their seat belts, the most likely to speed. So it's a target demographic that we really want to go after."

    In Hawai'i, the national advertising campaign will reinforce ongoing local efforts to cut down on drunken driving among younger people, Ishikawa said.

    "The advertisements will likely appear on television networks like ESPN or MTV that are watched by young drivers," Ishikawa said.

    The state has several ongoing programs designed to cut down on drunken driving. They include:

  • The new graduated driver's license, which puts restrictions on younger drivers, including how many passengers are allowed when they drive;

  • The D2 program, in which restaurants offer designated drivers free nonalcoholic drinks all summer;

  • The 52/12 program, in which police departments from all four counties put up a roving roadblock every week to find drunken drivers, Ishikawa said.

    Coinciding with the national ads, 11,000 law enforcement agencies will conduct sobriety checks and go on roving patrols until Labor Day in what authorities say will be an unprecedented effort to get drunken drivers off the nation's roads.

    Previous public-awareness campaigns urged people not to drink and drive and to prevent their friends from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. But they didn't put a dent in the problem alcohol-related traffic fatalities have remained virtually unchanged in a decade, Nason said. That's why the Bush administration decided to launch a punchier campaign, for which NHTSA has committed $11 million.

    Drivers of all ages with blood alcohol levels of .08 the legal standard for a presumption of drunkenness were involved in 12,945 fatal crashes last year, down slightly from 13,099 in 2004, NHTSA said.

    A 170-pound man who drinks at least four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach would reach the .08 level. Three drinks in the same timeframe would do it for a 135-pound woman, according to NHTSA.

    The lobbying group Mothers Against Drunk Driving endorsed the ad campaign and the police crackdown. MADD President Glynn Birch, a father whose 21-month-old son was killed by a drunken driver in 1988, said research shows public information combined with a visible law enforcement presence are the most effective deterrents to drunken driving.

    Col. Jim Champagne, a former Louisiana state trooper who now chairs the Governors Highway Safety Association, cautioned against being cavalier about driving while tipsy.

    "It's time for this country to quit saying, 'Oh, that's ole Joe, he's down at the bar and he had one too many gin and tonics,'" he said. "The cost to this country in lives, injuries and economic damage is unbelievable."

    The Advertiser's Mike Leidemann and Raju Chebium of Gannett News Service contributed to this report.

    Correction: A total of 11,921 motorists who were involved in fatal crashes last year were found to have a blood-alcohol content of .08 or higher; nearly half of those people were between the ages of 21 and 34. A previous version of this story omitted the fact that the numbers referred only to those motorists who were involved in accidents in which someone was killed.