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Dealing with Maryland's increase in DWI fatalities

August 30, 2005

Last week, Maryland officials reported that even as drunken driving fatalities fell by 2 percent nationwide last year, the state's own rate grew by 12 percent in 2004.

It's the fourth year since 2000 that Maryland's drunken-driving death rate has increased, even while states such as Virginia have been able to cut their rate for two years in a row.

It's time for state officials to look at what other, more successful states are doing and try some of these ideas in Maryland.

In its Aug. 23 story on the issue, The (Baltimore) Sun quoted State Highway Administration officials as being puzzled by the increases, despite their statements that the matter is being taken very seriously.

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So what might work? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in cooperation with a number of mid-Atlantic states, has developed something called "Operation Strikeforce."

Launched in 2002, Operation Strikeforce's success depends on sobriety checkpoints, saturation patrols and paid advertising to emphasize the dangers of drunk driving.

But it's the checkpoints that seem to be the key to the program. NHSTA cites research that checkpoints cut drunken-driving crashes by as much as 20 percent.

It seems to have worked for Virginia. In 2002, when Maryland was holding only 66 checkpoints, Virginia set up 140.

In 2003, while Maryland kept its total at 66, Virginia checkpoints grew to 309.

In 2004, Virginia had eased off a bit with just 224 checkpoints, while Maryland had increased its number to 74.

The statistics seem to be sending a clear message. Virginia has three times as many checkpoints as Maryland and its fatality rate has dropped.

That doesn't mean Maryland shouldn't pursue increased penalties for violators, but people who drink and drive do so because they don't believe they're going to get caught.

Increase the likelihood of apprehending violators with more checkpoints and Maryland will send the message that eluding penalties for drunken driving won't depend on luck, but on avoiding this sort of life-threatening behavior.

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