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In 2016, 59 people in the Washington area died from drunken driving. In 2017, that number shot up to 86.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP) released an annual report this month, which analyzed drunken driving data from 2017. The report found that nearly one-third of the region’s traffic fatalities are alcohol-related. But it also saw a decrease in alcohol-impaired crashes, injuries and arrests.
How does this compare to the rest of the nation? And what can be done to curb drunken driving? Kojo discusses the report with a member of WRAP and hears from a Maryland man whose life was impacted by drunken driving on what he did about it.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Kurt Erickson President & CEO, Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP); @WRAP_org
- Paul Li A person from Maryland affected by drunken driving
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into the Kojo Nnamdi, show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast the federal shutdown is over for now, but experts say furloughed workers may still experience the mental health side effects for weeks to come. A report released this month by the Washington Region Alcohol Program and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government looked at drunken driving statistics from 2017.
KOJO NNAMDIThe report found that in the D.C. area over 30 percent of all traffic related deaths involved a drunk driver, an increase of almost 50 percent in a year, but it also saw a decrease in the number of alcohol impaired crashes, injuries, and arrests. We'll talk about the report's findings and hear a personal story about a man from Maryland who was affected by drunk driving. Joining me in studio now is Kurt Erickson. He is the President and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, W-R-A-P, WRAP. Kurt Erickson, thank you for joining us.
KURT ERICKSONKojo, thanks for having us on.
NNAMDIKurt, what were the biggest findings from the "How Safe are Our Roads" report, which looked at data from 2017?
ERICKSONWell, I think you captured it. It's always seemingly a mixed bag for this report that we've done now for 26 years on an annual basis with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government. And in this year it was no different. You said it. Drunk driving crashes, drunk driving injuries, drunk driving arrests specifically in greater Washington are all down. That's good news. We shouldn't shy away from that, but what was so incredibly disheartening was the fact that drunk driving fatalities knowing that they're 100 percent preventable, weren't just up. They were up significantly. They were up by over 45 percent just in the greater Washington area alone.
NNAMDIThis report also looks at drug impaired drivers. How are these statistics included in the data and do you have a sense of what types of drugs these drivers have taken?
ERICKSONNot specifically. Although, I can tell you that what's interesting is the fact it's not always the drugs that you think about. For instance, we don't know what all of Montgomery, Prince George's County in Virginia, but for the District of Columbia, as an example, that 20 percent still to this day of their drunk driving arrests -- when drugs are involved, it's not marijuana as I think a lot of people think. It's actually PCP. So I think it's surprising a lot of people.
ERICKSONBut I think the other thing that people should be reminded is that so many of drivers are poly users. It's not just alcohol and it's not just drugs. It's usually a combination of the both. In fact, over 40 percent of drug positive fatally injured drivers -- in a report that came out last year by the Governor's Highway Safety Association, found that these drug positive fatally injured drivers also tested positive for alcohol.
NNAMDIAre police officers allowed to check for drug use if they pull a driver over?
ERICKSONAbsolutely. But that's when it comes to question of resources. And so what they'll do more often than not, is a breathe test. A breathe test isn't going to give you evidence of other than alcohol impairment. And so what usually happens is that if they get a BAC reading, they'll usually charge somebody accordingly under the drunk driving statutes in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia.
ERICKSONIt's only when they don't get a BAC reading, but yet they suspect of somebody of impaired driving that maybe they'll do a drug test. But it's not as deep of a dive as we'd like to have happen. We'd really like to oral fluid testing happen to be able to determine what's involved here with this impairment. Is it alcohol? Is it drugs? Is it alcohol and drugs?
NNAMDIKurt Erickson is the President and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, WRAP. We're talking about how drunken driving deaths have spiked in the D.C. region. Kurt, how do the rates of traffic fatalities compare to the national average?
ERICKSONYeah, so that's a great question. So what's interesting is is that nationally -- so we just said at our report that locally drunk driving fatalities were up. Nationally drunk driving fatalities are actually down for the exact same year, 2017. But what was interesting in the report that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put out and it really dove tails with our numbers, it puts D.C., Maryland, and Virginia amongst the minority number of states or territories that recorded upswing in these number of fatalities.
ERICKSONThe bigger issue is is that today -- this day 29 percent of all traffic deaths involve drunk drivers nationally. We as a greater Washington area or the Washington metropolitan area are actually above that. We're almost at 32 percent. So almost literally a third of all traffic deaths involved drunk drivers. We don't want to be above the national average. And that count -- unfortunately this report shows that we're squarely there.
NNAMDIDo you have any idea why crashes, injuries, and arrests related to impaired driving decreased in the region?
ERICKSONWell, those have actually been steadily going down. So those weren't surprising numbers. Drunk driving injuries have been steadily going down at least since 2010, same thing with crashes. Arrests have gone down actually for the four consecutive years, but that could be mixed bag situation depending on how you read that. You'd certainly like to have less DUI arrests as a whole. But is it the fact that law enforcement aren't fully staffed in the region to be able to do as many arrests as they had done in the past because we've seen these arrests, again, go down. They went down eight percent specifically in the last year. So that's concerning for us.
NNAMDIYeah, because I can see if the traffic fatalities going up and the arrests are going down, the conclusion that we tend to jump to is that, well, less people are driving drunk, but that may not necessarily be the case at all.
ERICKSONYeah. I don't think that's the case. The fact to the matter is there is always seemingly or at least for years till date there has been more drunk drivers than there have been men and women in uniform looking for them. They simply outpace the law enforcement that are doing God's work out there in terms of identifying and apprehending them. But the fact to the matter is that, you know, we're still a community that annually has a DUI -- or excuse me. Every 38 minutes has a DUI arrest. We have 13,564 arrests just in 2017. It's the total populations of Fairfax Station and upper Marlborough being combined, every single year getting busted for a DUI.
NNAMDIHere is Jane in Washington D.C. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANEHi, Kojo and Kurt. Thank you for taking my call, just wanted to bring up the fact that lowering the blood alcohol level or BAC from 0.08 to 0.05 can really help make a difference. Utah was the first state to do so and that went into effect in January. And we're already seeing--
NNAMDIJanuary of this year?
JANEYes. Yes, sir.
JANEAnd we're seeing some great data from the state where they've got alcohol related deaths dropping nearly by half from the previous year. And it's something that -- I work with the National Safety Council. It's something that we definitely are promoting and we a number of other states that have introduced legislation to lower 0.05. And I'll add that Mayor Bowser when she was on the Council actually introduced such legislation a few years ago. And hope that she may reconsider that again.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about that, Kurt?
ERICKSONThat's certainly one of the strategies that a number or organizations are actually supporting to combat drunk driving and there's more immediate ones as well. As well as technology based ones that people are championing as well. You know, in our school of thought is we need to double down on what we know what works. Sobriety checkpoints, it's not just my opinion that they work. They're actually studied by the insurance institute for Highway Safety and they said if they're done well, they can reduce drunk driving fatalities by as much as 20 percent.
ERICKSONThe embrace of technology to combat drunk driving or to prevent drunk driving, ignition interlocks, for instance, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are all localities that if you get convicted of a DUI now, you have to put these in car breathalyzers in your vehicle if you want to have a restricted license. That's great. And Maryland is taking full advantage of it, 16,000 people are on that program in Maryland, 7,000 people are on it in Virginia. But D.C., that passed it in 2016 to this day, only has 18 people on this provenly effective technology to prevent drunk driving. We'd like them to take a bigger bite of the apple there.
NNAMDIAnd why would D.C. only have 18 people?
ERICKSONIt seems to be slow in its implementation. Again, was actually passed as law in 2016, but it hasn't been fully implemented. I'm not too sure what the delay is. But it's frustrating because you have a locality that over 1200 DUI arrests. Now that said, D.C. does have an interesting burden in the fact that you have a large number of DUI arrests that are coming from outside the city. For instance, 40 percent of their arrests actually come from Maryland.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Paul Li. He's from Maryland and his life has been impacted by drunken driving. Paul Li, thank you so much for joining us.
PAUL LIThank you, Kojo. Thank you, Kurt for what you do. Yes. My son is a victim of drunk driving. In the summer of 2015, he just graduated from high school. He went to a party where alcohol was served and a bunch of his school friends were there. After the party was over, he got into his friend's car. His friend was drunk. The car got into an accident. My son, Calvin, and his friend and other friend, Alex, lost their lives in that accident.
NNAMDIAnd after you lost your son, you petitioned Maryland lawmakers and ended up creating the Alex and Calvin's Law, named for your son and the other teenager who died in this accident. What is this bill? What does it do?
LIYeah. I have to give credit to our legislator, David Fraser-Hidalgo and he championed to this law. And he was the person behind this legislation. So what the bill does is to put a potential prison penalty to the adults, who knowingly provide alcoholic drinks to underage drinkers, and that's basically what the law says. Previously there wasn't any criminal penalty for adults providing alcoholic drink to underage drinkers.
NNAMDIWell, the law says, quoting here, "Adults who provide alcohol to underage individuals in Maryland face up to one year of imprisonment and a maximum fine of $5,000 if the drinkers are going to drive and if that driving results in serious injury or death." But you seem to think that there should be stiffer penalties put on parents, who give alcohol to underage kids, Paul?
LIYes. Initially when the bill was presented, there wasn't the provision you mentioned or the provision that the parents -- the adults have to knowing provide alcohol. And the second provision is an injury has to occur in order for this penalty to take place. So, you know, I understand their legitimate concerns about the original proposal without the two provisions, but I think in the end this is a step in the right direction. At least there is a criminal penalty there, prison penalty there that can serve as a deterrent.
NNAMDIOkay. Let's go to Daria. Daria in Maryland. Daria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARIAHi, Kojo. And I'm so glad you're exposing this issue and talking more about it. I am a DUI counselor. I'm a clinical social worker with a group called Maryland Counseling Centers in Rockville. And I can tell you that one of the biggest things that might be helpful is getting more information out about how little it takes for someone to be deemed as impaired.
DARIAThe two different types of groups we run are for first timers and that's a six week education program. And then there's 26 weeks for people, who have multiple or blow really high on their first DUI. And the first timers tell me over and over again, "I didn't realize that it only took like two drinks for me to be considered impaired." And that people need to get that message that really almost no amount of alcohol is deemed safe. If you're 120 pound woman, and you have one or two drinks, you can be over the legal limit.
DARIAAnd even if you are down to a 0.05, you can also be put into an education group. You can be arrested for something as low that. So and they reiterate it over and over. And I've been doing these groups for a while that they say, "I just think it needs to be out there more that it really doesn't take that much."
NNAMDIKurt, how do you feel about that?
ERICKSONYou know, I think she hit on a very good point, which is blood alcohol concentration education. I think, you know, most people know if they're going above the speed limit. Most people know if they have the right amount items in the 15 or under grocery store line. But most people don't know their BAC levels. And I think it's worthy of a separate conversation to try to figure out how we as a public can educate the public on what their safe levels are.
ERICKSONYou know, people constantly ask us, "I don't of a safe level." I want people to be educated on what actually blood alcohol does to the body, but if somebody is asking me for what the safe level of alcohol is, I don't know what it is.
NNAMDIWell, and thank you for your call, Daria. James would like to comment on that. James, your turn.
JAMESYes. Thank you, Kojo. I'm a defense attorney in Fairfax, Virginia, and I just want to say that I've seen a lot of people charged with DUI come to the courts. DUI is a crime about poor judgment. And so I don't know if we up the ante on the penalties, how that's going to do anything when we're talking about people who are committing the crime in the first place, because of a lack of judgement.
JAMESSo lowering the limit and doing these other things can only go so far when we're really talking about a crime that at its basest form is a lack of judgement. It's a risk crime. It's about showing poor judgment, being a risky person out on the road. And changing the penalties, changing the limit, changing the punishment of a bad occurrence happens, because of the risk isn't going to change any of that, unless you go towards absolute zero tolerance.
NNAMDIWell, Kurt Erickson, are there any legislative changes that could be made in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland that could prevent drunk driving accidents and fatalities outside of say lowering the limit.
ERICKSONWell, first of all, I wish there was legislation that would ensure personal responsibility, because I agree with actually the point of personal responsibility. You know people aren't--we don't want people to make decisions to how they're getting home after they're out for evening. We want them to plan ahead. We actually do a campaign called Checkpoint Strike Force and the majority of 21 to 35 year old men, which is any anti-drunk driving group's audience, believe it's important to plan ahead. But less than two-thirds, 59 percent, regularly do before they go out for an evening. So you want them to exercise that personal responsibility.
ERICKSONTo answer your question about legislation, so right now you've got concurrent legislative sessions in both Maryland and Virginia, Maryland for 90 days, Virginia for 46. Maryland has got a number of things they're looking at. Maryland is one of four states that actually includes the District of Columbia that doesn't have a felony level charge for a DUI. In other words, you could have 33 DUIs and still not read a felony level charge. The governor in that state has introduced legislation to combat that. Maryland has got a seemingly expanding loophole called PBJs, probation before judgement that people get on rather than getting convicted for a DUI.
ERICKSONAnd these ignition interlocks that we talked about, we'd like to have them apply at a PBJ to be a condition of probation. Virginia has got a number of perineal issues. One of the bigger ones has been the fact that most anti-drunk driving organizations are also pro-seatbelt organizations, because they think that wearing a seatbelt is your best defense against a drunk driver. And primary seatbelt legislation has been introduced for decades in that state. And just last week that legislation was unceremoniously killed.
NNAMDIPaul Li, how do you feel about lowering the legal limit?
LIYeah. I agree with the caller that it's a personal judgement in the case of adult drunken driving. But in the case of teenage drunken driving, you know, teenagers may not be able to fully exercise their self-control. I thinks that's incumbent upon the parents to make sure that they don't provide alcohol to the underage drinkers. I think lowering the limit, yeah, if the data shows that lowering the limit could reduce fatality, I think that's something we need to do.
NNAMDIOkay, here's Steven in Falls Church, Virginia. Steven, your turn.
STEVENHi, thanks, Kojo. I'm someone, who actually has had two DUIs and I got my DUIs in California. And they're very strict out there and I just have to say that with how strict they were it made me realize, I could never do this again. After my first DUI -- and I was below the limit when I got my first DUI, but I was swerving. I had to do classes for six months. I had to lose my license for six months.
STEVENAfter the second one I lost my license for I think it was two years. It was about a couple years ago. I had to go to classes for two years straight. The amount of money that I had to pay towards the classes, it made me question everything. You just had the lawyer on too, who just said, he's not sure. You know, making things that straight -- making things stricter if that's really going to help. I have to disagree. I mean, it really -- it opened my eyes to say, "Do I really want to spend once a week in a classroom shelling out $100 almost every week for four hours at a time talking and going over what I did was wrong?"
STEVENIt just made you realize that what you do is wrong. And as a survivor of two DUIs I have to say that it helped me and I have no problem making things stricter for people.
NNAMDIAnd you don't drink anymore?
STEVENI haven't had a drink in three years. And, you know, I started drinking, when I was in high school when I was 14-15. And was driving and I had parents who provided alcohol and I never got caught until I was much older, but I think, you know, it has to be one of those things where people have to realize that -- you know, you see these billboards. "Oh, it's going to cost you a lot of money." A cab is $20. But a lawyer is $5,000. It doesn't. I mean, you don't realize it until you're in it how much. I had to go jail. I was sent to prison.
STEVENIn Los Angeles.
NNAMDIGot it. We don't have a lot of time left, but we have certainly heard your point of view. Peter emails, "We have spent decades adjusting the wrong variable. Raising the drinking age is like an abstinence approach to STDs. Instead we need to raise the driving age to 21 and establish alternative transportation media for those without licenses including the elderly." What do you think about that?
ERICKSONYeah. I don't have an opinion or public position on that, but I will tell you this. That the options that people can exercise have never been greater in terms of the upsurge of alternatives to drunk driving including ride share services. You know, outside of all the things that we've talked about this afternoon, we actually run the sober ride program in the area.
NNAMDII was about to ask you about that. Explain the sober ride program.
ERICKSONSo sober ride is a free safe ride service that WRAP, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, has done since 1993, 75,000 people have taken advantage of it. We offer it on various different holidays. I think people know about it through the cab paradigm, when it existed as that. But in 2017, we hitched our wagon to ride sharing specifically and with Lyft even more specifically as our ride share partner. Since that time, our ridership has not just modestly increased. It's more than tripled and the fact to the matter is that's a great thing. The more people that we can get outside of driving their own cars, if they're going out drinking and indeed use alternative modes of transportation that much the better.
NNAMDIHere is Catherine in Oakton, Virginia. Catherine, your turn.
CATHERINEHi. I was just wondering what your thoughts are of putting maybe a breathalyzer in bars or restaurants where people could privately check their blood alcohol level and decide whether they should drive or not.
ERICKSONYeah. I'm a huge fan for BAC education measures. That has been done. I'd still like to see it done in a different way. One of the things that those weren't as appropriate -- as calibrated as perhaps they could be, it often resulted in people having a contest of who could get drunk that much faster.
ERICKSONBut one of the things that's interesting and Annapolis Police do this on a regular basis, is to actually have on a bar scene with an outside table how people do BAC test without repercussion. They're not walking towards their car. It's not done in a parking lot. So that people can see indeed that they're either over the limit or nearing the limit and so forth. It runs the risk, you don't want to give people a false sense of security. You don't want to have to give them a 0.07 level and go, "Well, I'm below the legal limit. I'm okay to drive." But I think BAC education is key here.
NNAMDIWell, you might want to put some BAC equipment in some homes this weekend because this is Super Bowl Sunday is coming up and football fans may enjoy a few drinks with the game. What should they keep in mind if they need transportation home from a viewing party or a bar?
ERICKSONWell, the big thing they should keep in mind is that 48 percent is nearly half of all traffic fatalities specifically in this country and specifically over New Year's involved drunk drivers. That's a scary number. I think, you know, people can host games -- host parties the right way. Do what stadiums do. Close the bar at least an hour before the event's end. You hear about designating a driver. Try designating a sober bartender. Don't let guests mix their own drinks.
ERICKSONAnd then there's things that we can all do whether you're going to a Super Bowl party or not. One of the things is to report drunk drivers. Be that extra set of eyes. In Maryland and D.C. it's done by safely dialing 911 and in Virginia it's #77. And then we talked about seatbelts before. But, again, buckle up. The routine wearing of seatbelts is the single most effective measure to reduce crash related deaths and injuries. So if you're still looking for a New Year's resolution a month in, choose that one.
NNAMDIKurt Erickson, he's the President and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, WRAP. Paul Li is a person from Maryland. Paul was affected by -- his life was impacted by drunk driving. He lost his son. Thank you both for joining us. Later in the broadcast, the federal shutdown is over for now. But experts say furloughed workers may still experience the mental health side effect for weeks to come. That's up next. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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