Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Editorial

Alcohol and traffic deaths

The entire undergraduate student bodies of the Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Naval Academy combined. The population of Bel Air, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The average attendance at a Hershey Bears hockey game (the highest in the AHL).

Every one of those descriptions represents roughly 10,000 people. By any way of looking at it, that's quite a large crowd. It's also the same number of people who are killed each year in vehicle crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers in this country. The number injured in such incidents is more than 17 times as great.

Yet somehow a collective yawn seems to arise from many of our elected officials when the subject of drunken driving comes up — or in this case, the National Transportation Safety Board releases recommendations to reduce this continuing national epidemic. Those recommendations, which include lowering the blood alcohol content at which a driver is considered impaired to .05 (from the current recommendation of .08), aren't likely to go very far without a fight.

Indeed, representatives of the restaurant, bar and alcohol industries are already throwing out words like "ludicrous" to describe the lower BAC guideline. Of course, that's a familiar reaction, as those same businesses strongly opposed the NTSB's call to lower the level from .10 three decades ago with much the same kind of hostility.

Surely the greatest threat to motorist safety these days is our collective complacency over drunken driving and the contribution it makes to highway fatalities. In Maryland, for instance, while the overall rate of crash fatalities has declined, the number of alcohol-related deaths has stayed stagnant in recent years — and even increased in the last year for which numbers are available. In 2011, there were 162 drunken driving fatalities in Maryland. That was 5.2 percent more than the 154 recorded in 2010.

Mind you, lowering the BAC may not be the quickest road to reducing highway fatalities. Maryland police arrest records show that the majority of the 21,286 people charged with driving while impaired last year recorded a .10 or higher on a breath or blood test. (More than 2,200 registered a BAC of .07 or lower but were arrested anyway, likely on suspicion of drug use, according to Maryland State Police).

But a lower BAC is not the only recommendation to come out of the NTSB report. The board backed heightened police enforcement, including such high-visibility techniques as sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols. The agency touts the use of passive alcohol sensors so that officers can more easily detect alcohol vapor in a vehicle. The NTSB also supports greater use of ignition interlock devices for all those caught driving while intoxicated. Such technology can prevent repeat offenses by requiring drivers to essentially pass a Breathalyzer test before starting up a vehicle — and periodically while operating one.

Those recommendations dovetail nicely with what safe driving advocates, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have been urging in Maryland and elsewhere for years. Even with existing laws, it's clear that more needs to be done to prevent repeat offenses. Too many people caught driving while impaired are getting off too lightly.

Yet, when MADD and other groups push for tougher laws in Annapolis, lawmakers balk — particularly in the House Judiciary Committee, where the longtime chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., practically barricades the door. Two years ago, Delegate Vallario consented to broadening the ignition interlock requirement but watered the bill down beyond recognition.

We think lawmakers in Annapolis shouldn't be smugly satisfied with 162 deaths per year, any more than the country should be willing to accept close to 10,000. And that goes for police, prosecutors and judges at the state or local level, too. Realistically, state laws enforcing a .05 BAC might be years away from adoption, but there's no reason why communities can't do more to enforce drunken-driving laws right now.

Even that will require a strong grass-roots effort. It shouldn't take the untimely death of a loved one, friend or neighbor for people to campaign against drunken driving. Clearly, there's more each of us can do to make sure we (and those around us) don't drink and drive. But we must also pressure our elected officials to take action, too.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • How to reduce drunk driving
    How to reduce drunk driving

    People who have never been tested on a Breathalyzer are often surprised by just how intoxicated a person has to be to register a blood alcohol concentration of .08. It is enough to slur speech, impair vision, and dangerously alter perception and reaction time. You are, in a word, drunk and...

  • Retirement insecurity
    Retirement insecurity

    The "silver tsunami" predicted for Maryland, where more than 1 million workers have no retirement savings, is one that will sweep the rest of the country, too. As a matter of fact, the Employee Benefit Research Institute says the percentage of Marylanders with little or no savings is about...

  • Charter schools do not equal education reform
    Charter schools do not equal education reform

    As Philadelphia's Superintendent of Schools, I recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools because I thought it would improve educational opportunity for our 215,000 students. The last 20 years make it clear I was wrong.

  • The U.S. has yet to make good on its promise of reparations to black Americans
    The U.S. has yet to make good on its promise of reparations to black Americans

    Conversations about reparations are not about money but about people and about the way that people are seen and valued in our society. These are difficult conversations, and we have found that what is most challenging about the idea of reparations today is the notion that America still owes a...

  • Hillary Clinton's identity crisis
    Hillary Clinton's identity crisis

    "Is Hillary Rodham Clinton a McDonald's Big Mac or a Chipotle burrito bowl? A can of Bud or a bottle of Blue Moon? JCPenney or J. Crew?"

  • Pre-booking diversion: an alternative to conviction and incarceration
    Pre-booking diversion: an alternative to conviction and incarceration

    In Baltimore City, approximately 20,000 people were arrested for drug-related offenses annually in 2012 and 2013; nearly three quarters for simple possession. And while there has been a great deal of discussion over the last few years regarding the incarceration of individuals for drug...

Comments
Loading