Drunk driving vigilance

Maryland residents might be forgiven for feeling momentarily cheered by a brief news item that appeared in The Baltimore Sun this week heralding the state’s positive ranking in alcohol-impaired driving deaths. The study by SafeWise, an organization best known for its online reviews of safety and home security systems, reported that Maryland ranked 43rd in the nation when analyzing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics from 2016 for drunk driving deaths per 100,000 people. In other words, the state has far fewer deaths relative to its population then the vast majority of states. They pointed to factors such as the state’s recent expansion of its law mandating ignition interlock systems for convicted drunk driving offenders and the proliferation of ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber as factors.

But this might also be a lesson in how misleading statistics can be. Maryland’s high ranking might be more readily explained by its demographics. It’s a highly urban state, and so the prime opportunities for drunk driving deaths — high-speed crashes where one or more drivers is impaired — are simply not as common. In the Baltimore-Washington area, in particular, more people are apt to take mass transit or get stuck in traffic creeping around at 30 miles per hour or less than say, rural Alabama or Mississippi. And, as it happens, what states lead the nation in crash fatalities per 100,000 people? That would be Alabama with 21.3 deaths per 100,000 and Mississippi with 23.1, compared to Maryland’s 8.4, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which also crunches NHTSA’s numbers. Maryland’s top-flight Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore is another reason why there are fewer trauma deaths of all kinds in Maryland.

The more valid question for Maryland is this: Are we doing enough to prevent alcohol-impaired crashes? That’s a much tougher nut to crack. The passage of “Noah’s Law” two years ago was certainly a step in the right direction, as SafeWise suggests. Named after the Montgomery County police officer killed during a routine traffic stop by a suspected drunk driver in 2015, the law has meant more drunk drivers (those convicted of having blood alcohol levels of .08 or higher) have had to install what is essentially a breathalyzer test in their vehicles. It’s an effective strategy, as other states have proven, although it’s unlikely to have made much difference in 2016 given that the “all-offender” ignition interlock mandate wasn’t signed into law until May 19 of 2016 and did not go into effect until Oct. 1 of that year.

The number that should catch the public’s eye is not 43rd but 130 — that’s the total number of people who were killed in alcohol involved accidents in 2016. That’s a lot, and it increased to 139 last year. Or here’s another: 38. That’s the percentage of crash fatalities where alcohol was involved in Maryland, according to NHTSA’s 2015 numbers; the U.S. average is 34 percent, which strongly suggests that Maryland traffic fatalities are more tied to drunk driving than in most other states. In Mississippi and Alabama, those high fatality rate states we mentioned earlier? It’s 31 and 34 percent, respectively. So much for feeling superior to the Deep South.

That’s not to suggest that Maryland’s roads are more dangerous than most but it certainly warns against complacency whether there’s a Noah’s Law or not. Mothers Against Drunk Driving ranks the Free State fairly high at 14th in its annual analysis of state laws, but offers several areas for improvement such as making child endangerment a felony or requiring ignition interlocks in plea agreements and other times when a drunk driving charge is voluntarily reduced. Are Maryland police agencies aggressive enough in enforcing DUI laws? Is there sufficient public education on the risks of drunk and drugged driving? Mere numbers don’t tell the story. Only public support for doing most possible to prevent these preventable deaths should be regarded as acceptable.

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