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Sober Holidays, Safe Holidays

Campaign focuses on threat posed by drunk or drugged drivers

TUESDAY, Dec. 23, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Every day in the United States, as many people are killed on the nation's highways as in one major airline crash.

And almost half -- 41 percent -- of all fatal crashes in 2002 were alcohol-related. Even more were drug-related, although exact statistics don't exist, according to federal officials.

Unfortunately, that trend tends to spike upward during the month of December, the time of year when people are supposed to be celebrating their friends and families, not watching them die by the side of the road.

That's why December has been designated National Drunk and Drugged Driving (3D) Prevention Month by a coalition of organizations coordinated by the National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD). Activities include public awareness and enforcement campaigns.

While December isn't the only time of year with excessive driving-under-the-influence fatalities, it is one of the most conspicuous ones.

"Generally, the DUI fatality rate increases rather significantly simply because there are more parties, more alcohol consumption and more people on the roadways," says Sandy Heverly, executive director and co-founder of Stop DUI in Las Vegas. "Drunk drivers never take a day off and it seems like they work overtime during the holidays."

"People always think about this as a holiday issue. Of course, it isn't just a holiday issue but it's a good time for people to be more careful," adds Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., a coalition of consumer health, safety and insurance organizations.

The problem is that so many parties with free-flowing alcohol converge at one time: office parties, Christmas parties, New Year's Eve parties.

"Typically, New Year's Eve is one of, if not the highest, peak times," says NCADD president John Moulden. "You get amateurs out there in addition to the regular drunks who are out there every day of the year."

The annual reductions in alcohol-related fatalities achieved since Mothers Against Drunk Driving started its crusade in the 1970s have started to edge up again. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 26,172 road fatalities were alcohol-related in 1982, declining to a low of 16,572 in 1999, but they were back up to 17,419 in 2002.

"People have become somewhat complacent about it," Stone suggests. "People do change behavior as a result of certain things. But a new generation comes along and unless you are really pushing hard on it, people forget and they sort of -- excuse the expression -- fall off the wagon."

Most states have lowered the legal level to 0.08 blood alcohol concentration, from 0.10, which, Stone says, is "a good number of drinks."

But you really shouldn't drive on any drinks.

"Impairment really begins with the first drink," Stone says. Your judgment, your vision and your reaction time all become compromised.

The sober driving message has been out there for a long time now, but not everybody has heard it. "It's astounding that there are still people who don't think ahead," Moulden says.

Experts suggest these tips to think ahead this holiday season:

  • If you drink, don't drive. "Call a friend, take a bus, call a cab, use the feet that God gave you to walk on," Heverly says.
  • If you're driving but not drinking, buckle up.
  • While driving, be on the lookout for drunk or drugged drivers. Some obvious signs are: People who are speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, putting their head outside the window in the dead of winter (they're trying to make out the lane markings), a car that is riding on bumps on the shoulder of the road that are designed to wake up sleepy drivers.
  • If you see such a driver, give them a wide berth. Don't try to pass them.
  • If you have a cell phone, call 911. Some states have special numbers to call to report an impaired driver. Try to get the license plate number, the make of the vehicle, the location, the direction of travel and even a simple description of the driver (for example, male or female). "You're talking about taking a potential killer off the road," Heverly says.

More information

The NCADD has tips on giving safe parties this holiday season. For more on impaired driving, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Advocates for Highway And Auto Safety or Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

SOURCES: John Moulden, president, National Commission Against Drunk Driving, Silver Spring, Md.; Judie Stone, president, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Washington, D.C.; Sandy Heverly, executive director and co-founder, Stop DUI, Las Vegas; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.
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