WASHINGTON – Road design is only partly to blame for the relatively high number of alcohol-related fatalities on the state’s rural roads. The other part of the problem is the driver who is drunk behind the wheel.
Highway safety officials and traffic experts, noting the cost and the impracticality of rebuilding 15,846 miles of rural roads, have concentrated their efforts on discouraging people from drinking and driving.
“You combine the (two-lane roads) with the higher speeds people go on rural roads and slow reaction time due to the alcohol, and a mistake is more likely to become a fatal one,” said Jackie Gillan, the vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
She said the “answer isn’t going to be to go out there and rebuild all these roads,” but to go after the problem by focusing on the drivers.
Since there is no way to patrol every road — stretches of over 50 miles sometimes go without an officer — deterrence is the goal, said John V. Moulden, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving.
“Recognizing you can’t arrest every drunk driver. . .you want to make the drunk drivers think the police are everywhere,” Moulden said.
Sobriety checkpoints are becoming more common in rural areas as a means to create this deterrence, he said.
Individual counties may not have the manpower or the equipment, so they work with other authorities and jurisdictions. When a popular Solomons Island bar held its annual spring opening last week, for example, sheriff’s deputies from St. Mary’s and Calvert counties worked with state police and Natural Resources Police to cope.
“This is one of those special events where excessive use of alcohol is known to occur,” said Jackie Beckman, St. Mary’s County highway safety coordinator.
Another strategy is the use of “joint-saturation patrols,” said State Police spokesman Lt. Bud Frank. Police and sheriffs’ departments identify areas that are particularly problematic and then work together to catch drunken drivers in those areas.
In Garrett County — which has 1.7 percent of the state’s alcohol-related fatalities and 0.6 percent of the state’s population — part of the problem is the volume of tourists coming to Deep Creek Lake, said Diane Lee, Garrett County highway safety coordinator.
One way the county tries to deal with the problem is by addressing the alcohol supply side, she said.
“We’ve done a lot of work on the issue of carding,” for underage drinkers, Lee said. “We’re also helping provide training because they need to know when to cut people off.”
In neighboring Allegany County, highway safety coordinator Janie Hutcherson calls underage drinking and driving by Frostburg State University students “the county’s biggest challenge.” She said many of the county’s resources are tied up by that problem.
Highway safety officials cite limited resources as the No.1 impediment to fighting drinking and driving. A number said they rely on state and federal grant money to help fund enforcement, education and other programs.
The money can be used for billboards and educational outreach programs, or it can be used to buy equipment, pay for police overtime and set up highway safety teams, as Cecil and St. Mary’s counties have done.
Wendy Hamilton, public policy liaison for the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the state does not do enough to reach problem drivers but she credited rural authorities for doing their best.
“I commend state police and sheriff’s departments for their work,” she said. “Also, judges often are tougher in rural areas.”
Rural areas have other advantages. While traffic volume in urban areas may hamper police, for example, rural officers do not face that challenge, Frank said.
Relatively low rural crime rates also allow police and the courts to be more active, said Betty Malkus, program director for the Caroline County Health Department.
“You have to drive to go anywhere here, so the courts and the police are more vigilant on the Shore,” she said.