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Stiffer drunk-driving laws seem to be turning tide of fatalities

Attributing fewer car fatalities to tougher drunk-driving laws is hotly debated. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the laws have made a significant difference and that since 1982 traffic fatalities have decreased substantially.

The number of fatalities in crashes in which at least one driver or pedestrian was intoxicated decreased by 12 percent from 1982 to 1985, the NHTSA says.

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Massachusetts released supporting data last week in a study that monitored a 1982 state law increasing penalties for drunken driving.

The report by a state Senate committee found that nighttime fatal crashes -- a key indicator of drunken driving -- have decreased to the point where Massachusetts has the second-lowest rate in the United States. (New Jersey has the lowest, and the data were for 1983 and 1984, the latest years for which they were available.)

Nighttime crashes are used as a barometer in such studies because alcohol is often a factor in them.

A spokesman for the NHTSA, who asked not to be named, attributes the national decrease in fatalities to tough anti-drunken-driving laws enacted in many of the states since 1980. Some of the laws provide for license revocation for a short period for a first offense and jail for repeated offenses.

The NHTSA had been recommending such laws since the 1970s, the spokesman said.

But the new element that really made a difference, he added, was activism of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and Remove the Intoxicated Driver. They have focused attention on the high cost of drunken driving to individuals and have helped push through tough anti-drunken-driving legislation at the state level.

Not all experts agree that harsh penalties deter drunken driving. Some of them say that the time delay caused by overclogged courts so distances penalties from offenses that the penalties are not an immediate concern of potential offenders.

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Futhermore, the states' costs of solving the problem of drunk-driver-induced fatalities through tougher laws are high. Even more crowded courts, jammed jails, and lost wages (and lost taxes) are likely to result.

Instead, some advocate laws designed to make someone think twice before they take to the road after drinking.

H. Lawrence Ross, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and author of ``Deterring the Drinking Driver'' (DC Heath and Company Publishers: Lexington, Mass.), says that laws that convince people they are more likely to be caught, or that put the penalty closer to the time of the offense are more likely to work.

For instance, police in New Mexico take away the offender's license if he fails the Breathalyzer test, give him a ticket that allows him to drive for 30 days, then automatically revoke his license for 90 days if he does not ask for a hearing within 10 days.

Similar legislation is in process in Massachusetts which would automatically revoke an offender's license if a Breathalyzer test showed the person to have a 0.10 blood-alcohol concentration.

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