Drunken Driving Deaths Drop

Drunken driving deaths fell in all but one of 13 states targeted by a campaign that includes money for ads and enforcement efforts to get drinkers off the road, the government said Wednesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to expand the $5 million program, but won't know if it has the money until Congress approves a long-delayed highway bill.

The program paid for ads around the July 4 and Labor Day holidays. States added to that by increasing the number of police officers and highway checkpoints.

Drunken driving deaths then dropped an average of 6.7 percent in Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia. Montana also participated, but saw its death rate rise by 1.6 percent.

Nationally, drunken driving deaths dropped 3 percent in 2003, from 17,524 to 17,013. That marked the first decline since 1999. Twenty-eight states had fewer alcohol-related deaths.

NHTSA spent a total of $10.5 million on advertising in 2003 and $14 million in 2004. In both years, $5 million went to the 13 states, which were targeted because of their high death rates from drunken driving.

In Congress, lawmakers are expected to try to pass a compromise bill in September. The Senate version of the federal highway bill includes no money for drunken driving ads, but the House version contains $20 million, NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said.

Tyson said the imposition of lower blood-alcohol limits also has helped reduce deaths. Last year, 14 states adopted the tougher blood-alcohol standard of 0.08 to avoid losing federal highway funds.

In July, Delaware became the 50th state to lower its legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.08.

John Moulden, president of the National Commission Against Drunken Driving, said that despite the reduction last year, the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths has remained largely the same for the last decade.

NHTSA needs more money, Moulden said, so that it can pay for campaigns throughout the year. States don't have all the resources they need, and that is contributing to the high death rate, he said.

"We're grateful for every life saved, but if we had this many planes crashing or boats running aground, you could imagine the outcry," Moulden said.