Progress sought on drunken driving deaths

Officials look for a fresh approach to eliminate drunken driving as progress stagnates

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Drunken driving claims the lives of more than a third of the people killed each year on U.S highways, a level of carnage that that has remained stubbornly consistent for the past decade and a half.

The National Transportation Safety Board is meeting Tuesday to hear recommendations from its staff on ways to meet its goal of cutting out all alcohol-related driving deaths.

Dramatic progress was made in the 1980s through the mid-1990s after the minimum drinking age was raised to 21 and the legally-allowable maximum level of drivers' blood alcohol content was lowered to .08, researchers told the board at two-day information-gathering forum last year. Today, drunken driving claims about 10,000 lives a year, down from over 18,000 in 1982. At that time, alcohol-related fatalities accounted for about 40 percent of highway deaths.

But progress in cutting the rate further has largely stagnated, and board members have called for a fresh approach.

"Hardly anything has changed when we look over the last 15 years," Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said at the forum.

Technology may be part of the solution, and anti-drunken driving forces have talked of turning cars into a part of the solution.

In December, the board called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the auto industry to step up their research into technology for use in all vehicles that can detect whether a driver has elevated blood alcohol without the driver breathing into a tube or taking any other action. Drivers with elevated levels would be unable to start their cars.

But the technology is still years away.

A combination of approaches will be needed to effectively drive down fatalities, most researchers agree.

Reducing the blood alcohol limit below .08 would save over 7,000 lives a year, McCartt has estimated.

Australia saw a 12 percent decline in alcohol-related deaths as a share of overall traffic fatalities when it lowered its legal limit to .05, Barry Watson, director of the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety in Queensland, told the board. The limit in most of Europe is also .05, and in some countries it's as low as .02.

A woman weighing less than 120 pounds can reach .05 after just one drink. A man weighing up to 160 pounds reaches .05 after two drinks.

Another recommendation from researchers has been to expand the use of alcohol ignition interlock devices by drivers convicted of driving under the influence. The devices usually require a driver to breathe into a tube, much like the breathalyzers police ask suspected drunken drivers to use.

Expanded use of high visibility checkpoints by police has also been recommended.

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