The Wash
Traffic safety experts urge pedestrians to use crosswalks and watch for turning vehicles. While exercising this caution, they also advise people to be aware of signs of impaired driving, including driving without headlights, stopping short of stoplights, speeding, driving slowly and swerving. (Lauren Berryman / The Wash)

Fatal DUI crashes hit record high last year, ‘no excuse’ for impaired driving

Local leaders encourage residents to plan transportation before drinking, especially since car accidents tend to increase between Halloween and New Year’s Day.

Impaired driver traffic fatalities in Montgomery County hit a record high last year, although fewer people were on the roads during pandemic shutdowns. 

During a typical year, alcohol-related fatal crashes consist of about 30% of all traffic deaths in the county. But last year, 50% of all fatal crashes were caused by an impaired person, according to data from the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). This data excludes fatal crashes on interstates, which are investigated by Maryland State Police.

“There is no reason that an innocent person should have their life completely upended and devastated in this way because of somebody’s poor choices,” said Robin Stimson, victim services manager at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The MCPD reports 20 people died last year in alcohol-related traffic accidents in the county. This is more than twice the number from the previous year. Looking back to the county’s first record of these accidents in 1996, there have never been more alcohol-related traffic fatalities than in 2020.

Wade Holland, Montgomery County’s Vision Zero coordinator, said he finds this data alarming. 

“What we did see, and this happened in Montgomery County, even though traffic dropped considerably during the pandemic nationwide, there’s actually an increase in the fatality rate from ’19 to ’20,” Holland said. “If I were a betting person, I would have lost money because usually when we head into a recession — because the recession will kick down the amount of traffic — it usually correlates with a lower fatality rate.”

“We saw this issue of excessive speeding, impairment by alcohol and not wearing a seatbelt,” Holland said, calling it a triple threat. “When you add all those things together, they’re three strong ingredients for a bad outcome.”

Both the United States and the Washington-metro area report seeing a similar trend. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that fatal traffic accidents were up 7% across the country, and fatal alcohol-related accidents were up 9% from the previous year. Kurt Erickson, president of Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP), has followed the trend in the Washington-metro area for almost 40 years.

Erickson said, historically, the region’s rate of impaired driver fatalities has been below the national average. But he said the region’s rate now exceeds the national rate.

“What’s happened in the most recent years is that we’re now above the national average and not in a good way,” Erickson said. “So, 28% of all fatalities nationally. But that report for 2020 said that 32% of all traffic deaths in the greater Washington-metro area involved drunk drivers,” citing data from WRAP’s annual report. 

Erin Goodhart, senior clinical director of women’s and family services at Caron Treatment Centers, said the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic impacted everyone differently. She said experts at Caron Treatment Centers, a nonprofit dedicated to addiction treatment, saw an increase in relapse rates during the pandemic among people with substance use disorders.

“What the research has shown us is that during the pandemic, substance use in general increased,” Goodhart said. “I think whenever we have an increase in substance use, there’s going to be increased risk and, ultimately, increased consequence.”

Considering the data, Montgomery County police officer Jayme Derbyshire said Marylanders need stronger deterrents to end drinking and driving. If someone is arrested for driving while intoxicated, they may serve jail time, pay fines and install ignition interlocks, which prevent cars from starting before the driver demonstrates they have not been drinking.

Derbyshire commented that while interlock laws help, Maryland still does not have the strongest DUI laws compared to other states.

“Maryland is one of the few states that doesn’t have a felony DUI law,” Derbyshire said. “What that means is every DUI that anyone in Maryland gets is a misdemeanor [if there is no bodily injury]. And so, someone — and people do — can have six, seven, eight DUIs, and it’ll always be a misdemeanor. But if you come to New York, if they have two DUIs, then their second DUI is a felony.”

Because both fatal and nonfatal car accidents tend to increase between Halloween and New Year’s Day, local leaders encourage drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to use extra caution when on roads. Stimson of MADD encourages people to call law enforcement if they suspect someone is drinking and driving.

From Halloween through the New Year, traffic safety experts encourage drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to stay vigilant of other drivers, especially as accidents tend to increase this time of year. (Lauren Berryman / The Wash)

During high-risk times, the MCPD uses saturation patrols, during which officers “saturate” areas where nightlife is present, acting as deterrents and making arrests as necessary. Derbyshire said the police department will be doing saturation patrols most Friday and Saturday nights — and some Thursday nights — from now until January.

“As the holiday season approaches and people come home from school and families get together and there are more holiday parties, obviously there’s more imbibing that takes place,” Derbyshire said. “And so those DUI numbers generally increase at that time, and so we have additional officers on the road to account for that increase.”

Local initiatives, like WRAP’s SoberRide program, are also doing their part to prevent drinking and driving. The program offers over 21-year-olds in the greater Washington-metro area a $15 credit on Lyft rides during high-risk times of the year, including the weeks leading up to New Year’s Day. For nearly 40 years, 80,000 people have used what Erickson calls a “life-saving service.”

“We’re fortunate in the sense that we’re in a day and age where there are rideshare services,” Derbyshire said, adding there is no excuse for impaired driving, especially with Uber and Lyft as options. “What I suggest is just have a plan. And if you don’t and you find yourself in a bad situation, there are so many other options. Just don’t get behind the wheel of that car.”

While local nonprofits and the MCPD tackle the immediate concern, mental health experts aim to address the long-term impact of the pandemic on substance use.

“The alcohol-related accidents and fatalities are really a symptom of a bigger issue and bigger need here, which is access to care,” explained Goodhart of Caron Treatment Centers. “People knowing that if I’m struggling with anxiety or stress or depression or I’m hyper-vigilant all the time and constantly on edge that there are other healthier ways to manage that stress.”

Holland of Vision Zero said it is too early to tell what this year’s data will show regarding Montgomery County traffic accidents. He said toxicology reports can take months to obtain and accidents during the approaching holiday season tend to significantly contribute to the data. Still, he hopes increased education and outreach on traffic safety work toward the Vision Zero goal. 

Local leaders agree that the only acceptable number of fatal and nonfatal crashes is zero. 

“It’s infuriating anytime we hear of these crashes and that they keep occurring,” commented Stimson of MADD. “It is definitely not what we want to see. We want the trend to go to zero. Zero percent. Zero victims.”

Lauren Berryman

Lauren Berryman is a master's candidate at American University's School of Communication pursuing a degree in Journalism and Public Affairs. At The Wash, she covers news in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area. She also works as a graduate researcher and reporter at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Berryman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2021 where she studied Health and Exercise Science, Journalism and Bioethics. She primarily covers health and environmental beats.

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