ROCKVILLE, Md. – Drunken drivers beware: Police say they are starting a crackdown this month and the government is promising arrests for those who drink and drive.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday it hoped new advertising would help lower alcohol-involved fatalities, which have barely budged in a decade. The government said 39 percent of all traffic deaths last year involved alcohol.
"We do mean business. If they don't get off the streets voluntarily, we're going to take them off the streets," said Acting Transportation Secretary Maria Cino.
The $11 million advertising campaign targets male drivers ages 21-34, who had the highest percentage of drivers in fatal drunken driving crashes. The ads show authorities pulling over three men driving in vehicles filled with beer, wine or liquor, telling viewers: "Make no mistake: You will get caught and you will be arrested. Drunk Driving: Over the Limit. Under Arrest."
Law enforcement is stepping up its searches for drunk drivers through Labor Day, using sobriety checkpoints and additional patrols that target problem roads and sporting events, festivals or concerts where people may be drinking excessively.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an advocacy group, estimated that more than 11,000 law enforcement agencies would be participating in the patrols.
A total of 16,885 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2005, including pedestrians and cyclists, down just 0.2 percent from 16,919 in 2004. The figures have shown little improvement in recent years — in 1997, for example, 16,711 people were killed under those circumstances.
Alcohol-related traffic deaths increased between 2004 and 2005 in 25 states and the District of Columbia, including California, Florida and Pennsylvania. Twenty-three states had decreases, including Texas, New York and Illinois. North Carolina and Rhode Island figures were unchanged.
In 2005, fatal crashes involving at least one driver or motorcyclist with an illegal blood-alcohol level of 0.08 dropped more than 1 percent. But traffic deaths in crashes involving a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 — nearly twice the legal limit — were up nearly 1 percent.
Some critics contend that tactics such as sobriety checkpoints fail to catch repeat offenders and problem drinkers because those motorists typically know where the roadblocks are located, while those who have a glass of wine with a meal fall into the dragnet.
"It scares responsible adults who had a drink prior to driving," said John Doyle, executive director of the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurants.
But law enforcement officials say they have struggled to fight drunken driving in recent years because alcohol seemingly goes hand-in-hand with sporting events, concerts and celebrations.
"It seems like it's fallen off the last few years. The public as a whole, I think, is starting to consider it acceptable behavior again, and that's certainly not the direction we want to go," said Wisconsin State Patrol Major Dan Lonsdorf, director of the state's Bureau of Transportation Safety.
Lonsdorf noted that Wisconsin authorities typically arrest more than 40,000 drunk drivers a year "and we barely think we are making a dent in the total number that are on our highways."