Last December, Fairfax County Police officers, on average, made an arrest for driving under the influence (DUI) better than every 24 hours. Such was a strategic effort to address what the U.S. Department of Transportation has called one of the deadliest times of the year due to an increase in drunken driving.
In fact, during the next two weeks’ winter holidays, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures shows that the U.S. historically bears witness to 40-percent and 60-percent spikes in alcohol-related traffic fatalities during Christmas and New Year’s, respectively.
However, drunken driving isn’t just a holiday problem. It’s a year-round problem as evidenced in the more than 3,200 persons annually arrested for DUI in Fairfax County alone. And while data released by NHTSA just last week shows that, nationally, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities decreased by 2.5-percent in 2011, these 100-percent preventable deaths actually increased in Virginia and by over eight-percent last year.
According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Fairfax County’s roadways last year played host to 903 alcohol-related traffic crashes and 573 injuries resulting from these local crashes. Equally alarming is that today, 34-percent of the fatalities annually occurring on Fairfax County’s roadways are alcohol-related. Translation: Despite our best efforts, drunken drivers are still responsible for more than a third of the county’s traffic deaths.
While I’ve been fortunate to be afforded this space in recent years and during this time of year to echo the battle cry to not drink and drive, this year, let me direct a different message to those of you who have every confidence in your own ability to not drive impaired (which, unfortunately, doesn’t extend to the next Fairfax County driver).
Specifically and in addition to previous and still important calls to action to designate a driver, stop an impaired driver and put safety first when it comes to either hosting or attending holiday functions, here are two key actions all Fairfax County residents can take to help stop drunken driving’s clearly continuing scourge: report drunken drivers this holiday season and buckle-up.
It is an unfortunate truth that there are more drunken drivers than there are men and women in uniform looking for them. This is where an extra set of eyes can not only be helpful but can be a lifesaver. If you believe that you are sharing a Virginia roadway with a suspected drunk driver, report them to police by safely dialing #77 on your wireless phone.
And while the wearing a seatbelt may not be widely viewed as a tool in this effort, there is truth in the adage that the wearing of a seatbelt may be your best defense against a drunk driver. In fact, the routine wearing of seatbelts is the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries, period.
Buckling up also makes a good, no cholesterol and zero-calorie New Year’s resolution.
Kurt G. Erickson is a member of Fairfax County’s Board-appointed Oversight Committee on Drunk Driving as well as president of the Fairfax County-based and nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program.