As police throughout South Jersey prepare once again to crack down on drunken driving, they do so knowing the past six years have shown a significant decrease statewide in impaired driving.
“People are generally becoming more responsible,” said Lt. Anthony DiSciascio, spokesman for the Somers Point Police Department. He added that with the variety of awareness campaigns and programs state- and nationwide, people are more aware of the dangers of drinking and driving.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a statement recently indicating a downward trend in drunken driving-related deaths, and stated that overall traffic deaths have reached the lowest level since 1949.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving declared that a milestone of fewer than 10,000 drunken-driving deaths per year has been reached.
“Not only did the number of people killed in drunk-driving crashes in 2011 (9,878) drop by 2.5 percent from the number killed in 2010 (10,136), but this decline outpaced the 1.9 percent decrease in overall highway deaths,” a statement from MADD says.
A combination of awareness and time attributed to the decline, said Jose Ucles, spokesman for the NHTSA.
Although awareness campaigns to target drunken drivers began about 25 years ago, it has taken time to realize the effect, Ucles said. In addition, cellphones moved to the forefront only about four years ago, so the campaigns changed from targeting drunken or impaired driving to distracted driving.
Ucles said the success of campaigns also comes from frequent advertising by media, coverage of fatalities in the news, enforcement at the state and local levels, and more stringent safety standards in car manufacturing.
The holiday season from Thanksgiving weekend to New Year’s Day is often the time police focus on enforcement, as statistics show those periods mean more drinking and driving.
About a third of all traffic fatalities in the state are attributable to drunken driving. New Jersey’s total number of fatalities has decreased from 709 in 2006 to 586 in 2011, and the number involving driving while intoxicated has dropped from 220 to 182 over the same period, with a low of 154 reported in 2009, according to statistics from the State Police.
The State Police website shows repeat offenders account for a high number of alcohol-related crashes and that nationally, impaired-driving fatalities are on the rise. Almost 18,000 people are killed each year, and at least 250,000 people are injured.
The federally funded “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” program through the NHTSA, which is funded by $7 million from Congress, provides money for supplemental mobile DWI patrols throughout the year, with additional focus during the holiday season, Ucles said.
Somers Point and Lower Township police each was granted $4,400 in funding for saturation patrols as part of the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign, which they are undertaking again this year. The grant allows officers assigned the task to focus only on DWI enforcement during peak hours. Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over began in 1999.
With the funding, Lower Township police are able to have 15 patrol officers in addition to those on regular shifts, who work on enforcement during the holidays, Lt. Tom Beeby said.
Zach Hosseini, spokesman for the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety, said drunken drivers are responsible for about 30 percent of the total traffic fatalities. Historically, drunken drivers have been involved in 20 percent to 30 percent of the total fatalities. That percentage has remained consistent as the overall number of fatalities has declined, he said.
State Police reported that in 2011, more than 31 percent of those killed in auto accidents had consumed alcohol, and more than 16 percent were legally intoxicated.
DiSciascio said patrolling is more effective than a checkpoint in finding drivers under the influence.
“State troopers sometimes staff DWI sobriety checkpoints but more often find that on the roads for which we have responsibility, mobile DWI patrols are more effective and less disruptive to traffic flow,” State Police spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones said.
DiSciascio agreed, saying patrols allow for a larger area of coverage, rather than a stationary position.
“Checkpoints are more educational because you’re giving out leaflets or handouts,” he said. “With patrols, you are scouring the whole town.”
Somers Point has reported 24 drunken driving-related accidents in the past year and 146 DWI arrests.
Area restaurants and bars also aid in ensuring drivers return home safely.
If a customer is drinking three (alcoholic drinks) in 10 minutes, for example, the bartender or server may stop them, said Ginny Tiniakos, manager at The Windjammer in Somers Point. The restaurant provides a service to their intoxicated customers by driving them home if no alternate ride is available, he said.
“We don’t want you to throw your life in turmoil,” Somers Point police Chief Michael Boyd said. “Just know there are other means of transportation.”
Laura Camp, a driver for Ocean City-based Atlantic Cape Transportation, said she still sees too many drunken drivers. Often, she said, she has spotted a number of customers who visit Somers Point bars stumble into their cars.
Elsewhere in the country, cities offer free cab service during the holidays. In a Dec. 3 statement, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, a Maryland-based nonprofit founded in 1982, released statistics for the impact of its free-cab program.
“For SoberRide’s hours of operation during just last New Year’s Eve, such ridership (396) translated into the removal of a would-be drunk driver from our shared roadways every 72 seconds,” WRAP President Kurt Gregory Erickson said.
Some programs, such as the one through WRAP, offer a free ride with a fare cap, such as $30, while others limit the mileage to be driven.
Since Dec. 7, the DWI patrol officer has been on duty from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., Somers Point’s Boyd said.
In Lower Township, the patrols began Dec. 10 and will continue until Dec. 31, Beeby said.
The Facebook site for Somers Point police advises anyone who sees a drunken driver, anywhere in the state, to report it by dialing #77.
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