Drunk Driving Death Rates Drop, But ...

Drunk Driving, Drinking, DUI, Alchohol, Car keys
The nation's alcohol-related traffic death rate has dropped by more than half during the past 20 years, a government study shows. But the chances of being killed by a driver who's been drinking still vary significantly from state to state.

At the same time, government agencies and anti-drunk driving groups announced a holiday crackdown.

The federal government's most comprehensive look at drunken driving accidents over the past two decades shows that gains in the fight against drunken driving have been widely disproportionate across the country.

Drivers in South Carolina, the state with the highest death rate, for example, are four times more likely to die in alcohol-related traffic accidents than drivers in Utah, the state with the lowest death rate.

CBS News Correspondent John Hartge reports there will be stepped up police activity to fight drunk driving for 16 straight nights, from the weekend before Christmas through the weekend after New Year's.

"There will be sobriety check points; there will be a lot of those," said North Miami Beach Police Chief Bill Berger.

Berger also said drivers will see "wolfpacks, which are specially-trained traffic officers that specifically look for speeders and indicators that the person may be under some type of substance, alcohol or drugs.

Berger said the extra police activity is not to spoil your fun.

"Enjoy the holidays. Have a great time. Just don't drink and drive," he warned.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration compiled the state-by-state statistics to encourage states at the bottom of the rankings to get tough on drivers who drink. The agency and law enforcement in every state say they will crack down on drunken and drugged drivers with sobriety checkpoints and increased patrols from Dec. 20 through Jan. 5, the kickoff to a yearlong effort to curb impaired driving.

The number of people killed in alcohol-related crashes has risen slightly since 1999 ending years of steady decline. Last year, 17,448 were killed, accounting for 41 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths.

NHTSA defines an alcohol-related fatality as any that occurred in an accident where a driver, pedestrian or cyclist had alcohol detected in their blood. In most states, it is legal to drive with less than 0.08 percent blood alcohol content.

Last year, the alcohol-related death rate nationwide was 0.63 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared to 1.64 in 1982. That year, U.S. traffic deaths connected to alcohol use totaled 26,173, or 60 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths.

Today, Puerto Rico's alcohol-related death rate is higher than any state's — 1.38 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled during 2001. South Carolina, Montana, Louisiana and the District of Columbia also reported rates of more than one death for every 100 million vehicle miles.

States with the best records are Utah, Vermont, New York, Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, Virginia, Indiana and California — all with fewer than one-half death for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

In California, the percentage of alcohol-related traffic fatalities nearly mirrored the national trend, dropping from 61 percent of all traffic deaths in 1982 to 40 percent last year.

The state's rate of alcohol-related deaths per 100 million miles driven dropped from 1.65 in 1982 to 0.5 last year, leaving California 42nd in the nation instead of 25th.

But spokesmen for the California Highway Patrol and Mothers Against Drunk Driving said they were concerned about an increase in alcohol-related deaths in the last few years.

Ron Miller, grant coordinator for MADD's California branch, said the fact that the number of California highway deaths related to alcohol use climbed from a low of 1,348 in 1997 to 1,569 last year "might be because of the perception that we have won the war" against drunken driving.

After 1982, a national movement to curb drinking and driving began to gain momentum.

In the early 1980s, President Reagan formed a Presidential Task Force on drunken driving, Congress required states to raise the drinking age to 21 and the newly formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving began pushing for tougher anti-drinking legislation nationwide.

Tougher seat belt laws and improvements in vehicle safety also helped lower numbers. Deaths linked to alcohol use fell nearly every year in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching a low of 16,572 in 1999.

Highway safety advocates say Americans have become complacent about the dangers of drunken driving. Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said more attention has been focused recently on the risk of cell phone use than on drunken driving.

"We have very little evidence that a significant number of people are dying from cell phones, yet we know that more than 17,000 people died from drunken driving," he said.

MADD President Wendy Hamilton blames higher death rates in some states on a lack of political leadership. "Those states are not enforcing the right laws and are not passing the right laws," she said.

Adkins said states need more federal funding for highway patrols to stop drunken driving, especially in this era of budget shortfalls and increased police attention to homeland security duties.

Marilena Amoni, NHTSA's associate administrator, said drivers need to be held responsible when they choose to drink and drive.

"It's not just the role of the state and federal government, it's a personal choice to make the right decision every time you get in the car," she said.