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Early on Aug. 3, trucker Dennis Ray West was northbound on I-85 near Henderson, N.C., when a van in front of him bounced off the right-lane guardrail, crossed both lanes and crashed into a concrete bridge rail. The van teetered briefly, then tumbled over.
West parked in the emergency lane and prepared to help. Before he could get out of his cab, however, the situation worsened.
A U.S. mail truck occupied by North Carolina truckers Reggie Edward Hamilton and James Moore hit debris from the wrecked van, jackknifed and slammed into the back of West’s trailer. The truck burst into flames. West unhooked his load and saved his tractor, but he was unable to save the two truckers.
Beneath the bridge, the van driver, Gregory Andrew Lucas, was trapped in the wreckage. Rescue workers spent four hours cutting him out. Lucas survived the wreck, but did not escape other consequences: When he was discharged from the hospital, police arrested Lucas for driving under the influence and operating without a license.
Truck drivers get many of the headlines when they’re involved with deadly wrecks, but fatal accidents involving drunks are much more common. Alcohol-related accidents killed more than 17,400 Americans last year – 41 percent of all traffic-related fatalities, three and a half times as many as die in accidents involving big rigs. In fact, while truck-related fatalities are on the wane – falling the past five years – alcohol-related fatalities have risen each of the past three.
With millions of dollars spent annually on awareness campaigns and efforts to strengthen drunk driving laws, why are the number of deaths increasing? Experts say problems persist because there is lax enforcement, ineffective sentencing and little public momentum.
“Getting any meaningful drunk driving standard is difficult,” says Mothers Against Drunk Driving President Wendy Hamilton. “It boggles the mind. Alcohol-related fatalities increased for the third year in a row.”
A lack of support for the tough but necessary changes, law enforcement and drunk driving experts say, is partly to blame for the increase in fatal drunk driving accidents. After 20 years of heavy public and legislative attention to drunk driving, the issue has less traction than it once did. In 1982, for example, 26,173 Americans died in alcohol-related traffic accidents – 60 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thanks largely to efforts by organizations such as MADD, an increase in the legal drinking age and better enforcement, the number of deaths plunged to 16,572 in 1999.
Still, most of the success occurred between 1982 and 1992. For the last decade, deaths have numbered between 16,500 and 18,000 a year. “Things were starting to improve, but now they’re not,” says Casey Perry, chairman of the National Troopers Coalition and a Wisconsin trooper.
Perry is quick to admit that enforcement is part of the problem. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drunk driving arrests, while not rare, affect only a small percentage of drunk drivers. The organization calculates that the 1.55 million drunk driving arrests in 1999 represented less than one arrest for every 50 drunk driving trips.
State troopers, county sheriffs and city police are generally understaffed. On the highway, where truckers often encounter intoxicated motorists, law enforcement can be scarce – particularly late at night, when a drunk driver is most likely to be on the road. Perry says many states are like Alabama, which has as few as six troopers to cover its interstates on some nights. “Many states have not kept up the size of their highway patrol force,” he says. “Many have not filled their recruit classes.”
Also, some states are unable to provide the local share – often 20 percent – for matching funds that federal anti-drunk driving programs require, Perry says.
While drunks are arrested every day, police often target holiday weekends, when casual drinkers are most likely to drink and drive, causing more fatalities. Police set up sobriety checkpoints and step up patrols. These actions are usually successful in catching drinkers and preventing some deaths.
Enforcement is just one part of the problem. Drunk drivers who are caught often get lax sentences or skip punishment altogether due to loopholes that are more lenient than those for commercial drivers. Offenders often take advantage of plea bargains, diversion programs like traffic school or have their cases dismissed when a witness fails to show up. Truckers have taken advantage of similar avenues to avoid costly tickets, although recent rule changes now make avoiding prosecution nearly impossible.
Many drivers refuse to take blood alcohol content tests, which can make prosecution more difficult. Prosecutors must rely on videotape, other sobriety tests or police observation and cannot tell juries that the suspect refused to take a breathalyzer. Some states have consequences, such as automatic license suspension, for people who refuse to take the test. Commercial driver’s license holders cannot refuse as a matter of law even if they’re operating an automobile when they are stopped.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says penalties need to be strengthened so that people who refuse the tests are penalized more severely than those who fail the test. Other organizations have asked for the same. “People should have to pay very heavy penalties,” says MADD’s Hamilton. “They should be swift and certain.”
One area where laws have improved is BAC level. Until a few years ago, most states had a 0.10 BAC level – that is, a driver was legally drunk if he had a BAC of 0.10. Now, thanks to federal efforts, 44 states adopted a 0.08 level, or the equivalent of four beers consumed by a 170-pound male in one hour on an empty stomach. For a 135-pound woman, three drinks under the same circumstances will typically produce a BAC at or above 0.08.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies show that the lower level and the accompanying media coverage has an initial effect of lowering fatal crashes. One study of the first five states to adopt the new standard showed a 16 percent reduction in the proportion of fatal crashes where a fatally injured driver’s BAC was 0.08 or higher. The reduction was greater for drivers with a BAC level of 0.15.
Because the six states that haven’t adopted 0.08 BAC could lose federal highway funds, they will likely comply, despite lobbying by restaurant and lounge groups and the alcohol industry.
Still, there’s little evidence yet of the long-term effectiveness of 0.08 BAC, and activists point out the problem isn’t with the law. Even if police arrest drivers at the new standard, the system has to follow through after the arrest. “All the research we’ve seen points us at 0.08 as the appropriate level,” Hamilton says. “But we need to make sure that all of the laws for 0.08 are also being enforced. Once these 0.08 drivers are arrested, they should be treated in the system. A slap on the wrist isn’t enough. The punishment should be there.”
Other countries have gone further. Australia, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway have limits of 0.05. Sweden, which limits drivers to a BAC of 0.02, is the only country to have a lower limit for motorists than the 0.04 the United States sets for truckers. But studies have not shown that the lower BAC levels significantly reduce incidents of drunk driving, safety experts admit. Strict treatment, strong enforcement and tough prison sentences can also contribute to declines, clouding study results.
Canada, for instance, adopted a criminal BAC level of 0.08 in 1969. It has looked at lowering that standard several times, but the Canadian Traffic Research Injury Foundation found little support in scientific studies for lowering the limit.
What Canada has found success with, however, are administrative roadside suspensions. Laws in all of Canada’s provinces except Quebec allow police officers to suspend a driver’s license for 12 to 24 hours if the driver has a BAC of 0.05 or above. Saskatchewan allows for such suspensions at 0.04. Drivers are either sent home with someone more sober or the car is towed. Some programs require a license reinstatement fee.
The 0.08 BAC level is popular because virtually all drivers are significantly impaired at that level, according to NHTSA. The agency reviewed almost 300 studies showing that drivers with 0.08 BAC have trouble with critical driving tasks requiring divided attention, complex reaction time, steering, lane changing and judgment.
Plus a body of evidence links that level to fewer fatal accidents. A 2000 NHTSA study showed the lower rate helped Illinois lower the number of drinking drivers involved in fatal accidents by 14 percent. A 1999 Government Accounting Office review of scientific studies also suggests a 0.08 BAC level, in combination with other drunk driving laws, public education efforts and consistent enforcement, saves lives.
“You really have to have all the pieces and put them together,” says MADD’s Hamilton.
Other popular and effective efforts include: administrative license revocation (sanctions imposed without first requiring court orders); strict laws targeted at high BAC (0.15 and above) and repeat offenders; zero-tolerance laws for minors; and seat belt laws.
The AAA Traffic Safety Foundation also recommends that drunk drivers be sentenced in a uniform fashion, and that they be treated and monitored. Penalties should include actions against the offender’s car; unlicensed drivers should face even stiffer penalties.
Finally, safety-related groups agree that repeat offenders should bear stiffer penalties, better treatment and, if necessary, longer incarceration periods.
It was a repeat offender charged with DUI, Lucas, who triggered the wreck in Henderson, N.C., that killed two truckers. Police Chief Glen Allen says drunk drivers account for about 70 percent of the fatal accidents – and some of the most gruesome – in his town of 20,000.
FACT OR FICTION?
MYTH #1: I CAN’T EXCEED 0.04 BAC EVEN WHEN DRIVING MY CAR.
FACT: State BAC levels apply to all motorists equally, even if they hold a commercial driver’s license. But any DUI conviction while driving a truck or a four-wheeler will result in the suspension of a CDL.
MYTH #2: IF I REFUSE TO TAKE A BREATHALYZER TEST, I PROBABLY WON’T GET A DUI CONVICTION.
FACT: This may be true if you were a regular motorist, but as a CDL holder, you can’t refuse to take a breathalyzer test. If you do, you forfeit your CDL. And police can still charge you with a DUI.
MYTH #3: I CAN’T DRINK A BEER IN MY TRUCK.
FACT: Not entirely true. You cannot have a beer in your truck when you are on duty. You can, however, drink in your truck when you are off-duty so long as you dispose of any alcohol before returning to duty and you are legally sober.
HELPING SPOT THE DRUNKS
Michigan state police enlisted the help of trucking companies for this year’s July 4 weekend. Truckers were instructed to report swerving and weaving drivers who appeared to be drunk.
While officials didn’t track calls from drivers, the program and associated publicity positively impacted safety. “In 2002, when July 4 was a four-day period, we had 30 highway fatalities statewide,” says Anne Readett, spokeswoman for the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. “We had only 12 fatalities this year. That will be the lowest three-day Fourth of July holiday since 1972.” The decrease is staggering, but even more amazing is that only one fatality was related to alcohol.
The publicity and resulting sense of awareness probably played as big a role as phone calls from truckers, say Readett and others. “I think the media campaigning probably scared some drunks straight,” says Mickey Blashfield, director of governmental relations for Central Transport, one of the participating carriers.
“A lot of the freight is moving late at night,” Blashfield says. “Inherently, you’re going to see some drunk drivers. Our general policy is to call it in to police. Avoid the drunk driver and give a wide berth.”
The company would participate in the program again because it gives drivers “a sense they were part of doing something bigger than themselves,” he says. Also, it offers a chance to re-emphasize safety to Central’s drivers, who have had their share of misfortunes due to drunk drivers. “One of our drivers pulled over to do a maintenance check and was in his vehicle doing some paperwork,” Blashfield says. “A drunk driver plowed right into the back of him. The driver was off the road, flashers going. There have been others, too.”