Alcohol-related traffic deaths decrease in Ohio over last 20 years

By MALIA RULON, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The chances of being killed in Ohio by a driver who has been drinking have been cut by more than half in the last 20 years, although the progress in many other states has been swifter, a government study shows.

The federal government's most comprehensive look at drunken driving accidents during the past two decades shows Ohio ranks 20th for alcohol-related traffic deaths. Its death rate is 0.57 for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, a 58 percent decline from the 1982 rate.

The national average death rate is 0.63, which is a 62 percent drop since 1982. South Carolina had the highest death rate, and Utah had the lowest.

Ohio's rank disappoints anti-drunken driving groups in the state.

"What is the problem? Why aren't we doing better? Some of it is public complacency. They think the problem has been solved, but it hasn't," said Judy Mead, executive director of Ohio Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Alcohol-related deaths fell from 996 in 1982 to 604 in 2001 in Ohio, the study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. The state's all-time low was 455 deaths in 1994.

Tougher seat belt laws and vehicle safety improvements are credited for the decline. In Ohio, law enforcement officials also attributed decreases to more sobriety checkpoints, harsher drunken driving penalties, treatment offered to some offenders and a requirement that all drivers who die in crashes are given blood tests for alcohol.

Ohio, a national ground transportation hub because of its central location and dense roadway grid, has a lower death rate than neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But its rank was worse than Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan.

The state has the nation's fourth-largest interstate network and fifth-highest traffic volume, according to the Ohio Transportation Department.

The federal agency compiled the state-by-state statistics to encourage states at the bottom of the rankings to get tough on drunken drivers.

The NHTSA and the State Highway Patrol in Ohio plans to start a yearlong campaign to curb driving by intoxicated or drugged people with increased patrols and sobriety checkpoints from Dec. 20 through Jan. 5.

The study defined an alcohol-related crash as one in which a driver, cyclist or pedestrian tested as having alcohol in their blood. In most states, the legal blood alcohol limit for driving is 0.08 percent. Ohio is one of 17 states where the limit is 0.10 percent.

MADD of Ohio believes the state's death rate would be lower if it had approved the stricter limit and allowed officers to ticket drivers solely for not wearing seat belts, Mead said.

Sgt. Robin Schmutz, a highway patrol spokeswoman, agreed a 0.08 percent limit would save lives. The state also would not lose millions of federal dollars for highway improvements that are set to decrease Oct. 1 for states that don't adopt the standard.

Mead said the highway patrol needs more funding, noting that the number of troopers has not increased since the 1970s.

Marilena Amoni, associate administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said drivers must be held responsible when they choose to drive after drinking.

"It's not just the role of the state and federal government, it's a personal choice to make the right decision every time you get in the car," she said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)