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Oct. 30, 2001 The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner highlights the drunk driving problem in Alaska

Posted: Monday, November 05, 2001

Don't drink and drive. Drunk driving kills.

These phrases have been repeated again and again. But somehow they don't seem to be getting through.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving last year released statistics that ranked Alaska as first in the nation with the highest percentage of traffic fatalities related to alcohol.

Hardly a statistic to instill pride, but Alaskans aren't alone. In the past decade, four times as many Americans died in drunk driving crashes as were killed in the Vietnam War. On average, one person nationwide is killed in an alcohol-related crash every 32 minutes.

Need more proof that the message isn't hitting its target?

In 1999, all of Alaska's law enforcement agencies combined made more than 5,600 arrests for drunk driving. However, experts estimate that by the time a driver has been arrested for drunk driving, that person has already driven more than 80 times while drunk.

State officials know that, for whatever reason, too many drivers are getting behind the wheel after drinking. On Sept. 1 of this year, a series of new laws went into effect designed to curb driving while intoxicated. For one, the state lowered the blood-alcohol level required to be considered driving while intoxicated from 0.10 to 0.08.

What does that mean? According to a blood-alcohol concentration ''calculator'' from the National Designated Drivers Association in Richmond, Va., a 170-pound person would reach the legal limit after consuming about four drinks within an hour. However, keep in mind that is only an estimation, and actual levels vary by gender, weight, physical condition and a variety of other factors.

While lowering the blood-alcohol limit was the right thing to do -- the possible loss of federal funds was an effective incentive as well -- even law enforcement officials say they doubt it will have any real effect on curbing drunk driving. It's more likely to give social drinkers pause before having one more than it is to deter chronic or heavy drinkers from driving.

Other changes to state law included stricter penalties for repeat offenders. If a driver has two DWI convictions within five years, the third is increased from a misdemeanor to a felony. By 2006, that deadline will go back 10 years. The minimum punishment for a felony DWI is $5,000 and 120 days in jail for two previous convictions and up to 360 days for more convictions.

Any toughening of current drunk driving laws is welcome. But it remains to be seen whether these changes were dramatic enough to make a difference.

Earlier this month, Asa Dowdy used an unorthodox -- and brave -- method to get out the anti-drunk driving message in Fairbanks. He put on display at the corner of Steese Highway and Third Street his daughter Heather's crumpled 1991 Toyota Camry. Seventeen-year-old Heather was driving that car on Sept. 30, 2000, when she was hit by a drunk driver and killed.

The twisted and mangled car dramatically illustrates the very real possibilities of driving while intoxicated. Perhaps the sight of Heather's car will succeed in stopping someone from driving drunk when even our public laws have failed.

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