Addressing the tragedy of drunken driving

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Column by Jenny Oldham, county attorney

I have been a prosecutor for the past 14 years, yet I’ve never become accustomed to the sorrow I feel when I’m involved in a case where someone has died because of alcohol-impaired driving.

These crashes happen far too often: In 2009, alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities accounted for 32 percent of the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the United States. That means an average of one alcohol-impaired-driving fatality happened every 48 minutes.

This senseless loss of human life is a daily reality all over America, year after year. I am convinced that this tragedy is 100 percent preventable.

Imagine the public outrage if 30 jumbo jets — each carrying about 400 people — crashed every year in America, killing everyone on board. That’s the equivalent to the toll our country suffers annually due to alcohol-impaired driving.

Where’s the indignation over this catastrophe?

The fact is that alcohol impaired-driving deaths did decline dramatically during the 1980s and early 1990s. Social activism, including the rise of organizations such as MADD, led to tighter laws that helped bring the death toll down.

During that period, every state and Washington, D.C., made it illegal to drive with a BAC of .08 grams per deciliter or above. In addition, the legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21. Today, high-profile enforcement campaigns such as Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over continue to help reduce the number of alcohol-impaired-driving crashes.

Although data show that alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities across the country have declined by almost 8 percent in the last year, the numbers are still too high. In 2009 alone, the latest year for which we have data, nearly 12,000 people died in crashes in which a driver or motorcycle rider was at or over the legal limit, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Because we’re committed to ending this tragedy, the Hardin County Attorney’s Office will join with others across the country during the Labor Day holiday weekend for an intensive crackdown on alcohol-impaired-driving. In 2009, alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities accounted for 38 percent of all motor fatalities throughout the Labor Day holiday. This nationwide enforcement campaign began Aug. 19 and runs through Sept. 5.

As your local prosecutor, my message during this crackdown — and the rest of the year, too — is clear and unwavering: Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over. With stepped-up law enforcement throughout the nation — including sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols — if we catch you driving impaired, you will face serious consequences.

For more information, visit the High-Visibility Enforcement Campaign Headquarters at www.StopImpairedDriving.com.

Jenny Oldham is county attorney for Hardin County. Her job includes prosecution of driving under the influence cases and other criminal matters in District Court.