ROCKVILLE, Md.—If you're used to having a few beers and getting behind the wheel, the next three weeks will be especially dangerous for you.
Automobile safety leaders announced Wednesday that they're starting a double-barreled police and advertising campaign between now and Labor Day to combat drunken driving.
The move follows new numbers that show almost no decline in the number of highway deaths involving alcohol last year—in fact, almost none in a decade—despite a toughening of the legal definition of intoxication and some increased policing.
Nicole Nason, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said she thinks that's because drunken driving still is seen as "a social crime" rather than "a deadly crime."
This new campaign will emphasize that drinking and driving can get you arrested, Nason said. That's in contrast to previous campaigns that focused on responsible drinking and designated drivers.
Over 11,000 state and local police forces across the country have agreed to increase patrols and sobriety checkpoints between now and Labor Day, according to Nason. In addition, NHTSA will air $11 million in television and radio ads targeting males ages 21 to 34, the likeliest to drink and drive.
The combination of a big ad campaign and increased enforcement makes this "the largest ever national crackdown on drunk driving," Nason said.
Alcohol-caused car crash deaths were down in 23 states and up in 27 states last year, according to statistics released Wednesday. The biggest successes were in Utah (down 50 percent), Maryland (down 34 percent), Rhode Island (down 24 percent), Massachusetts (down 21 percent) and Oregon (down 19 percent).
Drunken-driving deaths increased most in Hawaii (up 21 percent), the District of Columbia (up 31 percent), North Dakota (up 33 percent), Delaware (up 36 percent) and Vermont (up 40 percent).
"It's time for this country to stop just saying, `Oh, that's old Joe down at the bar, he had one too many gins.'" said Lt. Col. Jim Champagne, Chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit group focused on promoting safety programs.
Champagne, a lieutenant colonel in the Louisiana State Police, promised that the upcoming crackdown would involve the "highest concentration of law enforcement officers focused on this problem ever."
The ad campaign will help, too, said Pennsylvania State Trooper Dave Andrascik, who was on hand for Nason's announcement at a police training facility in suburban Washington, D.C. "It's kind of like a rejuvenation, not just for the police officers, but for the community," he said. "There gets to be a complacency" when the public hears old messages.
Nason said that her agency will decide whether to continue the campaign once the first results are in. "We'll see how successful we were and take it from there," she said.
Nason's agency had hoped to see big gains from a tougher intoxication standard adopted in recent years in many states, but it hasn't happened.
In 1995, 13,564 motorists were killed in accidents in which at least one driver had a blood alcohol concentration of at least .10 percent, NHTSA revealed Wednesday. In 2005, 12,945 motorists died in accidents in which one driver had a blood alcohol concentration of at least .08.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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