The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's report, which was being released Thursday, calculated the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven. NHTSA considers a crash alcohol-related if a driver had anything above a 0.01 blood-alcohol level, which is far lower than the 0.08 legal limit in 45 states.
South Carolina saw the greatest increase in its death rate during the four-year period, followed by Kansas, South Dakota, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. The states with the highest numbers of alcohol-related deaths per miles traveled were Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota, Nevada and Louisiana.
Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Washington-based Governors Highway Safety Association, said experts can't explain why some states have far fewer drunken driving deaths than others.
"There don't seem to be any patterns," she said. "Some have seen increases after a period of decreases and they're doing the same things as they were in the past."
Harsha suspects rates remain high in some places because of a growing number of alcohol-related motorcycle accidents in the last five years. She also said motorists are driving faster than they used to, so they're more likely to be in fatal crashes that may be fueled by alcohol.
Drunken driving deaths declined markedly during the 1980s and early '90s as organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving were formed and drew attention to the problem.
NHTSA's report showed 26,173 alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1982, or 60 percent of all traffic deaths, falling to 16,572, or 40 percent, in 1999. For 2002, the figures were 17,419 alcohol-related deaths, or 41 percent of all traffic fatalities.
"We seem to be stalled or stuck at relatively the same fatality rate," said Dennis Utter, the chief mathematician for NHTSA's National Center for Statistics and Analysis.
Earlier this month, NHTSA administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge said the nation needs to establish special drunken driving courts, screen medical patients for alcohol abuse and enlist the help of alcohol manufacturers in order to combat the rise in death rates.
Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia saw their alcohol-related death rates decrease, NHTSA says in its new report. Four states — Vermont, Indiana, Oregon and Iowa — and the District of Columbia saw their rates fall by 25 percent or more.
Vermont, Utah, Maine, New York and Indiana had the lowest overall death rates.
Vermont was the only state that showed consistent annual declines in its alcohol-related traffic deaths, NHTSA said. The state had an overall decline of 54.1 percent between 1998 and 2002.
Chuck Satterfield, a deputy sheriff and spokesman for Vermont's highway safety office, said Vermont put a number of measures in place after finding it had the worst rate of teen alcohol-related crashes in the mid-1990s.
Satterfield said police set up drunken driving checkpoints twice a year and coordinate them with a media campaign. Vermont also has one attorney who helps local prosecutors go after drunken drivers and another who keeps track of convictions and has the power to take vehicles from repeat drunken drivers.
NHTSA's numbers don't necessarily match data collected by states, since states vary widely in the amount of information they gather at accident sites. In cases where the dead weren't tested for blood-alcohol levels, NHTSA uses estimates and statistical procedures to determine the likelihood that alcohol was involved.
By Dee-Ann Durbin