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California lauded for efforts against drunken driving

WASHINGTON—California can teach Florida a thing or two about getting lethal drunks off the road. Missouri, South Carolina and Texas, too, can learn from California's work, U.S. Department of Transportation investigators think.

It turns out that the Golden State's often-notorious highways are safer than they seem. They can even be a role model.

In a first-of-its-kind study ordered by Congress, Transportation Department investigators have compared how states combat drunken driving. California stands out, from online innovations to the deployment of special drunken-driving task forces.

"Other states do come to us, to see how we do things," Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety, said Monday. "We all trade ideas back and forth."

California, for instance, makes it much easier for cities to seek funding, helping to tap the roughly $100 million a year that the federal government provides in grants and other anti-drunken-driving money.

The Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General further praised California for cleverly targeting areas with higher-than-average rates of impaired driving. The Fresno Police Department, for instance, has won national recognition for a federally assisted campaign that includes weekend traffic checkpoints.

"I get phone calls and e-mails from people from all over the country asking about what we're doing," Sgt. Eric Eide, a Fresno Police Department traffic supervisor, said Monday.

With federal funding, Fresno officers compile information on where collisions occur and swarm those areas with special enforcement efforts. Even when there are no DUI arrests, Eide said, the police presence spurs cautionary water-cooler discussions among drivers.

State-by-state comparisons suggest that California's programs must be doing some good.

In California, 1,719 people died during 2005 in drunken-driving accidents. That was more than any other state. But when the number of drivers and highway miles are taken into account, the state's record looks a lot better. It recorded 0.52 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Florida recorded 0.73 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Missouri recorded 0.75 fatalities, and South Carolina topped them both with 0.94 deaths.

Behind the numbers are names.

Such as Sullivan Daniel Spradley, a 5-year-old who was killed in South Carolina's Kershaw County while riding his bike on Father's Day 2005. Or Rawlin Stovall, a 70-year-old Miami resident who was killed in 2005 shortly before Thanksgiving when a drunken driver drove south on a northbound highway near the Florida town of Pembroke Pines.

The repeat offender who killed Sullivan is serving a 13-year term for felony driving under the influence. His blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit on the day of the accident. The driver who crashed into Stovall likewise had a blood-alcohol level three times legal limits along with a drunken-driving record.

Federal highway-safety officials are publicizing the "best practices" in individual states and are drafting voluntary guidelines for measuring state performance

"California obviously has a lot of resources, so it's not surprising that they're leading the pack," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In 2005, 16,885 people died in accidents attributed to drunken driving in the United States.

Nearly three years ago, urged on by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Congress ordered the Transportation Department investigators to examine the drunken-driving programs. Their report is circulating on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers could crack down in several ways.

A major immigration bill in the House of Representatives, for instance, would add a restriction that immigrants with three drunken-driving convictions can't obtain U.S. residency. Other bills have been introduced to spur the deportation of immigrants who are arrested for drunken driving.

More broadly, Congress could use its next big transportation bill to provide grants as incentives for the states to act.

"Politics plays a huge role in a lot of these issues," Adkins said.

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The report can be found online at http://www.oig.dot.gov/StreamFile?file(equal)/data/pdfdocs/NHTSA(underline)3-5-07(underline)FINAL(underline)w(underline)Signature.pdf

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