Drunken driving deaths rise in area

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Local,Transportation,Liz Essley

Drunken driving fatalities rose in Maryland, Virginia and the District last year, while the death toll continued a decades-long decline in much of the country.

Alcohol-related highway fatalities were up a combined 7 percent in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. between 2010 and 2011, as 27 other states reduced their total deaths attributed to impaired drivers, according to a new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Among the carnage wrought by drunken drivers in the region recently: an 8-year-old boy killed, and his mother in the hospital for weeks with a broken hip and legs in Alexandria; a travel-loving Carroll County teen killed by a hit-and-run driver; and three friends dead, their car smashed into a tree in Olney.

Planning an outing with alcohol over the holidays? Get a free cab ride instead of driving drunk, safety advocates say.
SoberRide, a service of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, will pay for cab fares up to $30 from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. from now to Jan. 1.
Riders can call 800-200-TAXI (8294) to get a free cab.
The nonprofit WRAP, along with corporate sponsors, pays for the cab rides.

"It's a wake-up call, especially in the holiday season that we're in, which is one of the most dangerous times for everybody," said Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. "It's balking at recent success that each of these localities and us as a region has had."

Among the three jurisdictions, 394 alcohol-related driving deaths were recorded in 2011, up from 368 in 2010.

In Virginia, 224 people died in crashes in 2011 with drivers who had 0.08 or higher blood-alcohol concentration -- up from 207 in 2010. In Maryland, the number rose from 154 to 162, and in D.C., the number rose from seven to eight.

"I think the whole thing is a matter of attitude," said Mount Vernon resident Jeff Levy, a long-time advocate against drunken driving whose son was killed in a 1997 alcohol-related accident. "We have not yet as a society decided that this is unacceptable behavior."

Federal officials released the numbers Thursday as they launched $7 million worth of radio and TV ads featuring the "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" slogan.

"The holiday season can be an especially dangerous time on our nation's roadways due to drunk drivers -- that's why law enforcement officers will be out in full force," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

Nationwide in 2011, 9,878 people were killed in drunken driving accidents, down 2.5 percent from 2010. That continued a decades-long success in lessening the carnage caused by drunken drivers. In 1982, when federal officials began collecting statistics, 21,113 highway deaths were alcohol-related, more than twice the number from last year.

The 7 percent increase in regional drunken driving deaths in 2011 may be a reflection of an improving economy in the area, experts said. When the region has jobs and cash, more people drive more often, meaning more drunken driving accidents are likely, said James Fell, a traffic safety expert based in Calverton.

The percentage of traffic fatalities that are alcohol-related has hovered near 30 percent over the last 15 years, Fell said. No major laws have taken effect to put a dent in that, experts said.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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Liz Essley

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner