I was quite disturbed at the picture appearing in the May 14 Juneau Empire, illustrating the terrible aftermath of an apparent drunk driving incident. At the same time, I was also dismayed by the dearth of details in the deadline story and the absence of any mention of this terrible accident in the following couple of days.
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Statistically, we all know that drunk driving is a serious problem in Alaska. More than 16,690 people across the nation lost their lives to drunk driving in 2004. That's over half the population of this town. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that alcohol was a factor in 39 percent of Alaska's fatal crashes and in 7 percent of all our crashes in 2004. Alaska was the leading state for the highest number of drunk driving fatalities per capita in 2000. By 2004, we had fallen below 18 other states, as enforcement, treatment and public policy changes were implemented to save lives that otherwise would have been lost to impaired driving.
Few would argue that Juneau is exempt from the problem. In fact, the most recent statistics show that the problem of drunk driving in Juneau is greater than the statewide average. According to the Alcohol Safety Action Program, Juneau drunk drivers have an average of four prior arrests, more than Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks offenders, which have 3.7, 2.9 and 2.6 prior arrests respectively.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Court Monitoring Program shows a drop in the number of Juneau driving-under-the-influence arrests from 96, during the first three months of 2005, to 57 arrests in the following three months. The cause of the decrease is unclear, however, it is unlikely that there are fewer impaired drivers on our roads as the weather improves. But whatever the reason for the decrease, this is a concern to Juneau residents, because research has shown that if the perceived risk of being caught is high, then people are less likely to drive while impaired.
One element of reducing the incidence of drunk driving in our community is public awareness. I would urge the Juneau Empire to continue to follow this important story and show the public the terrible consequences of drunk driving for the victims and the perpetrator. Taking the time to assemble the "five Ws" (who, what, when, where and why) of drunk driving would be a great public service, because it would let the public see the terrible toll impaired and drunk drivers are taking on our communities.
Cindy Cashen is the Alaska Highway Safety office administrator and former director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Juneau Chapter.
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