Among Dr. Jeffrey Runge's suggestions: more prosecutors and courts dedicated to drunken driving cases.
Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the country needs to overhaul the way it fights drunken driving.
"Since the early 1990s, we haven't made any progress," Runge said.
The number of alcohol-related fatalities in 2002 was 17,419, nearly the same as in 2000 and 2001. Of those, more than 15,000 were killed by people with a blood-alcohol level higher than 0.08, which is the legal limit in 45 states, Runge said.
Runge, a trauma surgeon, believes more needs to be done to identify chronic drinkers who are more apt to drive drunk. He said doctors should be asking questions about drinking whenever they see patients.
"A doctor's advice is often all you need to catch them early," he said.
Runge's comments coincide with Wednesday's launch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's 17th annual red ribbon campaign. MADD President Wendy Hamilton said the organization plans to distribute 6 million red ribbons to motorists this year, each with a picture of a seat belt to remind drivers to buckle up. Takada Safety Systems, a seat belt manufacturer, donated $500,000 for the effort, vice president Bob Kittle said.
Runge said such programs are important, but the government can do more.
NHTSA plans to offer grants for states to appoint prosecutors in areas with high drunken driving rates. Runge said drunken driving cases are complicated and tend to pit new prosecutors against experienced defense attorneys.
A bill moving through Congress contains $50 million that states would be able to use for grants for specialized prosecutors or courts dedicated to drunken driving cases.
Drunken driving courts, modeled on the drug courts, are reducing repeat offenses because they include treatment and intensive follow-up, Runge said. According to NHTSA, there are 68 drunken driving courts now in operation nationwide.
Judge Michael McAdam, president of the American Judges Association, said Runge's efforts add to the momentum in states to create drunken driving courts. One benefit, he said, is that judges in those courts become experts on drunken driving.
"The scientific evidence (in a drunken driving case) is complicated, and if you didn't hear these cases often, you wouldn't have the necessary science you might need for a decision," he said.
Without offering specifics, Runge said NHTSA plans to partner more often with the alcohol industry. NHTSA's interactions with distillers have been limited in the past, but he said the industry has been helpful in efforts to reduce the legal limit for intoxication in many states.
Hamilton said she is skeptical about the industry's commitment. She said she has often sparred with the beer industry and accuses it of mischaracterizing her group.
By Dee-Ann Durbin