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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
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