WASHINGTON – Deaths from alcohol-related traffic accidents in Maryland jumped 12 percent from 2008 to 2009, from 145 to 162, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported Thursday.
Maryland is one of 18 states to see an increase in drunken driving fatalities. It’s the state’s first increase in drunken driving deaths since 2006.
The jump came despite a drop in total deaths in Maryland from motor vehicle accidents. They declined by 7.4 percent between 2008 and 2009.
Nationally, fatalities from motor vehicle accidents dropped by nearly 10 percent that year, transportation officials said.
“Drinking and driving is a behavioral issue,” said David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “People choose to drink and get behind a wheel. Now, we have to continue to change that behavior.”
David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said people think impaired driving is a serious problem, but not enough of them do anything about it.
“This isn’t any sort of discretionary notion of risk,” Strickland said. “This is a crime, and it has to be stopped.”
Strickland said that in a 2008 NHTSA survey, 17 million Americans admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol that year.
Caroline Cash, executive director of the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the state’s lack of an ignition interlock law is keeping the number of alcohol-related deaths from falling.
An ignition interlock is a device that forces a driver to blow into a Breathalyzer before starting a car. If it detects a set level of alcohol on a person’s breath, or, in some cases, any alcohol, the car will not start.
Thirteen states mandate that anyone convicted of driving under the influence have the device installed in their car.
“I’m throwing down the gauntlet to our leaders in Annapolis,” Cash said. “We want this to be the first law they pass in January,” when legislators return for the 2011 session.
“It’s extremely frustrating when you know that there are families losing members to a 100 percent preventable crime,” she said.
Motor vehicle fatalities in Maryland overall dropped by more than 16 percent from 2006 — when auto-related deaths were at a five-year high — to 2009, according to the NHTSA. In 2009, 547 people died in Maryland in vehicle-related accidents.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said distracted driving is also a growing problem nationwide. His department will continue to take strong action to stem this trend, he said.
“Distracted driving is an epidemic,” he said. “Just about everyone in America has a cell phone, and they use it while they drive. They don’t drive safely when they do that.”