The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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September 14, 2013

Oklahoma's alcohol-related traffic crash deaths are up

(Continued)

Laws are in line

Ralph Hingson, director of epidemiology and prevention resources at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said Oklahoma’s laws appear to be in line with those of other states that have seen alcohol-related traffic deaths decline.

In some cases, though, Oklahoma has been slower to adopt tougher policies.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the state implemented a stricter law for use of ignition interlocks alcohol-detection devices, that drivers must breathe into before starting a vehicle.

The law, enacted after University of Oklahoma student Erin Swezey was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2009, requires those convicted of drunken driving for the first time to use an interlock for at least six months. Offenders with multiple convictions must use an ignition interlock longer.

Oklahoma has yet to see a reduction in alcohol-related deaths since the ignition-interlock law was passed. But several states, such as Missouri, Minnesota and Kansas, have seen reductions after the laws took effect.

But an ignition-interlock law and other laws on the books mean little without stricter enforcement on the streets, said Lt. Garrett Vowell, Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s impaired-driving enforcement coordinator.

Cutbacks to police budgets have hampered enforcement efforts in recent years, he said. Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, for instance, has seen its budget decline from $225 million in fiscal 2009 to $206 million in 2013. Oklahoma Highway Patrol, which is part of DPS, has been short-staffed for several years; last year it graduated its first class of cadets since 2009.

Vowell said police have to be smarter now, such as by using data to isolate hot spots of drunken driving activity and training officers better to detect impaired drivers.

Regardless, making a big dent in the numbers “isn’t easy to do,” he said.

“We’d like to look at the end of the year and see zero (fatalities)… We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

Moving urgently to address the issue in Oklahoma is key, especially when the numbers haven’t mirrored national trends, Stewart said.

“Complacency is the enemy,” Stewart said.

He encouraged more DUI checkpoint enforcement efforts, stronger emphasis on curtailing underage drinking and increased overall police enforcement.

“The fact that this hasn’t drawn more attention … seems unfortunate,” he said.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalist on important public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.

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