If you want to avoid liquored-up drivers this holiday season, steer clear of Montana.
In 2007, the state reported 106 fatalities in crashes involving at least one driver who was legally drunk. That comes out to 11.07 drunken driving-related deaths that year for every 100,000 people living in the 957, 861-person state. What's more, that number is up slightly; in 2006, Montana reported 10.9 drunken driving-related fatalities per capita.
One reason: With less than a million citizens stretched across 146,000 square miles, Montana faces distinctly rural challenges.
"Eighty percent of travel in Montana is on rural roads," says Jim Lynch, director of Montana's Department of Transportation, head of its Highway Traffic Safety Office, and the governors' representative for highway safety, "So most crashes involve speeds in excess of 55 miles per hour. A more urban state like Massachusetts has less than 6% of its drivers on rural roads--the majority of its traffic is in urban environments at slow speeds. We also have much longer emergency response times because of the distance; the average response time in Massachusetts is about 20 minutes, while in Montana it's an hour and 20 minutes. So an accident in Montana is far more likely to be life-threatening."
Cautious drivers won't find a haven in South Carolina either. At 10.5 alcohol-related fatalities per 100,000 people, this state falls just behind Montana for most drunken driving deaths.
Mississippi, Wyoming and Louisiana round out the top five, with 10.35, 9.37 and 8.57 per capita fatalities, respectively.
Many factors contribute to these rates, which jump during the holiday season when the highest number of drivers are on the road.
"We are unsure of whether the drivers are more at risk during the holidays," says Ellen Martin, the spokeswoman for the National Highway Transit Safety Administration, "but the absolute number of people dying is greater than on most days."
Wyoming's status as a "bridge"--where many travelers are passing through--contributes to the number of fatalities. (Wyoming has the lowest population of any state, with only 522,830 residents as of 2007.)
However, the folks at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) cite its law against sobriety checkpoints as a bigger problem. Ten states, including Wyoming, deem these checkpoints--where police officers will stop vehicles to determine the drivers' sobriety--unconstitutional, despite a 1990 United States Supreme Court ruling saying otherwise.
Behind the Numbers
To determine which states had the highest drunken driving death tolls, we looked at the number of drunken driving-related fatalities in each state according to a compilation of motor-vehicle crash data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the General Estimates System. Released in August by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, an office of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the numbers reflect fatalities in 2007.
We then multiplied by 100,000 and divided the result by the Census population estimates for 2007. This determined the states with the most accident-related fatalities per capita where at least one driver had a blood-alcohol content of .08 or more.
Although the number of motor vehicle fatalities, both overall and due to impaired or drunken driving, fell in 2007 compared to 2006, NHTSA's Martin does not consider this drop a trend.
"Alcohol-related vehicle accident numbers have not been tilting downward over the last decade," says Martin. "We're hopeful that we may see a downward trend, but police are dealing with more and more hardcore drinkers as years go by."
To counteract this, the NHTSA and other organizations are implementing preventive measures.
"We know that our high-visibility enforcement campaigns and our advertising campaigns that focus on young males and motorcycle riders have been very effective," says Martin.
Several recent laws aimed at reducing the number of drunken drivers have also been enacted. They include new open container legislation and a graduated driver's license law in which licensed minors must log driving hours with a parent in the vehicle and can't drive at night or with passengers without an adult in Montana and a new DUI law and underage drinking legislation in South Carolina.
Misty Morse, a spokeswoman for MADD, says that the organization uses about 38 tests to determine each state's progress when it comes to preventing drunken driving deaths. She says there are a few key laws that make a difference.
Along with laws that insist on sobriety checkpoints, an ignition interlock device can also prove effective, says Morse. The gadget, similar to a Breathalyzer, is installed in the dashboard. For the car to start, the driver must breathe into the device. Too much alcohol on the breath? The car won't start.
"We've found that when convicted drunken drivers are given a short, hard license suspension with a longer period of time where they cannot drive without breathing into an interlock, the state's drunken driving fatalities are lower," says Morse.
New York state exemplifies the benefits of more stringent laws. Following its 4.8% drop in drunken driving-related fatalities from 2005 to 2006, the state's rate fell 3.3% further to 1.99 fatalities per capita in 2007. That's among the smallest number in the country. MADD says the state's success is due to the strong presence of sobriety checkpoints and interlock devices.
Ken Brown, spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation, credits the state's success to its prevention efforts. According to Brown, New York tackles drunken driving and other safety issues using the "4 Es:" education, enforcement, engineering and emergency services.
"We also have six crackdown periods," he says. "Our next will run from before Thanksgiving to New Years' Day--where local law enforcement uses saturation patrols and DWI checkpoints. Our crackdowns are very effective: They remind drivers that 'We're out there, and we're going to get you.' "
The urban population also helps the state's record. Of the 19.3 million people in New York, about 8 million live in New York City. Of those 8 million, more than 75% do not own a car, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
But with 1.93 alcohol-related vehicle fatalities per 100,000 people, Utah residents have the least to fear from drunken drivers.
"We have very successful, high-visibility law enforcement activities and we don't let DUIs slide for any reason," says Teri Pectol, program manager of the Impaired Driving and Youth Alcohol Programs in Utah. "We've done more DUI checkpoints this year than we have in a long time."
Pectol adds that Utah's abstinent Mormon population also contributes to the state's low numbers.
But it's perhaps a community's acceptance of drunk driving that most affects a regions rates.
"Social norms and cultural factors have a big impact on drinking and driving rates," says Martin. "It's not considered wrong in some places to drink and drive; people view it with a wink and a nod. These social norms can be changed. We've advanced the ball significantly for using seat belts, and that's a social norm. But alcohol is much tougher, because many people are addicted."
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