WASHINGTON – Alcohol-related deaths on Maryland highways fell to the lowest number in history in 1997, a drop that observers attribute to the fact that drunken driving isn’t considered “cool” anymore.
“At one time, drinking and driving was viewed as socially acceptable,” said Brenda Barnes, the state executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “But now drinking and driving is no longer acceptable.”
There were 205 alcohol-related deaths on Maryland’s highways in 1997, down from a high of 454 in 1981. The percentage of highway deaths attributed to alcohol has also dropped, from 64.8 percent of all traffic fatalities in 1981 to 30 percent last year.
Over the last three years, about 34 percent of fatalities have been alcohol- related, said Paul Pinciaro, the alcohol program coordinator for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
Maryland State Police Lt. Bill Tower attributes the drop in drunken driving deaths to the fact that people’s attitudes toward drinking and driving are changing for the better.
“People are realizing that it is just not worth it,” said Tower.
And the defining voice of “cool,” the 20- to 30-year-olds, have stopped drinking and driving “more rapidly than the general population,” said David Hanson, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York.
“Drinking and driving has really become unacceptable,” said Hanson.
Maryland Gen X’ers are no exception. Drinking and driving among those in their 20s has dropped in Maryland in recent years as well.
The number of Maryland drinking and driving accidents blamed on those in their 20s fell from 3,500 in 1995 to 2,950 in 1997, according to the State Highway Administration.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism said in a 1997 report that the number of drinking and driving deaths associated with young adults has dropped dramatically in the last decade. The report found that drunken driving deaths attributed to 16- to 24-year-olds has decreased 47 percent in 15 years.
Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, attributed the drop to the citizen advocacy groups that have constantly hammered the consequences of drunken driving into people’s heads.
“Someone who did not take drunk driving seriously 20 years ago, would now,” Scher said.
The director of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute agrees.
“Drunk driving used to be considered a non-serious crime,” said Patricia Waller. “Now, these citizen action groups like MADD have made people realize that this is not a joke.”
Barnes of Maryland’s MADD chapter said that the decline could also be due to the fact that young adults are receiving a lot more attention than they have in the past.
“Preventing underage drinking has become a focus,” said Barnes.
Valera Lynch, director of an addiction program in Gaithersburg, said the key reason for the decline in alcohol-related highway fatalities is that drinking and driving just is not “in” anymore.
“It is sort of like smoking,” said Lynch, of the Ethos Foundation. “Drinking and driving is not socially acceptable any more.”