By The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — DUI arrests have skyrocketed in Mississippi in the past several years, helping lead to the lowest number of drunken driving deaths in decades.
It’s welcome news for a state that has ranked among the nation’s worst in per capita alcohol-related deaths. Projections estimate drunken driving deaths in 2010 in Mississippi will be about 232 — far below the 384 tallied in 2007.
The drop coincides with the state seeing more than 32,000 DUI arrests for the second year in a row, far more than the 22,511 several years ago.
Mississippi Highway Patrol officials attribute the rise in DUI arrests to local and county agencies across the state getting more involved.
“Here are things we know we can prevent through enforcement and stiff penalties,” said Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin. “It’s a deterrent.”
Decades ago, people thought nothing of drinking and driving, he said.
“Now you hear people talk about designated drivers, and ‘I’m going to get another way home,’” McMillin said.
The DUI problem goes beyond deaths, he said.
“Let’s talk about people who are paralyzed or have injuries they’ll have to deal with the rest of their lives,” McMillin said.
Projections put the Highway Patrol on track to have its highest number of DUI arrests in recent years at 8,805.
“We’re getting good results,” said Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson.
The patrol has “blitz periods” during the holiday periods aimed at reducing alcohol-related accidents, he said.
The patrol’s ability to make such arrests has been aided by annual grants from the National Highway Safety Transportation Association. This year, that grant topped $2 million.
Simpson said the grant made it possible to pay troopers overtime.
There is now a problem with that grant, he said.
Language in Mississippi’s grant application mentioned that while troopers are attempting to pull over DUI violators, they also can pull vehicles over for speeding, seat belt violations and child safety seat violations, he said.
NHTSA officials have raised questions about that language, saying it sounds more like general law enforcement purposes than patrols aimed at getting drunken drivers off the roads, he said.
“I think it’s absolutely splitting hairs. We’re getting the results we intended to get,” Simpson said.
He said the worst-case scenario is the DPS would “have to pay back some of the grant funds or give all the money ($2 million) back to NHTSA.”
The reduction in drunken driving deaths has coincided with an overall reduction in traffic fatalities, projected to total 610 in Mississippi this year.
Simpson pointed to “Click It or Ticket” as a seat belt campaign that has helped reduce fatalities.
Mississippi’s seat belt usage rate this year is the highest ever at 81 percent — slightly below the national average of 84 percent. That’s a significant increase from 2001 when the rate was less than 62 percent.
“We have the highest adoption rates we’ve ever seen for seat belts,” Simpson said.
In addition to seat belts, airbags, crash-resistant cars and better roads also have helped reduce traffic fatalities, said Mike Right of St. Louis, vice president of public affairs for AAA that covers Mississippi.
Those riding in trucks had the highest percentages of fatalities where people failed to wear seat belts. More than three-fourths of the truck occupants fatally injured during nighttime weren’t wearing seat belts.
“Pickup trucks are notorious for overturning,” Right said. “They are notorious for drivers and passengers who feel they’re invulnerable because of the mass and size.”
And when those trucks crash or overturn, those without seat belts can be thrown from the vehicles and killed, he said.
About two-thirds of fatal crashes occur in rural areas, where there are poorer roads, he said. “It’s sad because a lot of these people killed are youngsters. Their whole attitude is, ‘I can’t get hurt. I’m bulletproof.’ ”
Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the decline in alcohol-related deaths is a testimony to the hard work of law enforcement.
Unfortunately, he said, many drive drunk before getting caught. He said studies show those pulled over for DUI have often driven impaired at least 87 times before getting arrested.
Although alcohol-related deaths are declining in Mississippi, he said the costs of these remaining deaths are still staggering — an estimated $1.1 billion last year.
MADD officials are urging Mississippi lawmakers to follow the lead of Arkansas, Louisiana and 11 other states in adopting the ignition interlock device that requires convicted DUI offenders to pass a Breathalyzer test before they can crank their cars.
The device costs $70 a month for six months and $100 to install, Harris said. That cost is typically borne by offenders with a separate fund set up for the indigent.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that installation of these devices in the cars of DUI offenders would save 8,000 lives a year, he said.
State Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who has introduced legislation the past two years, said the ignition interlock enables those convicted of DUI to keep driving. “One of the hardships put on people convicted of DUI is they can’t drive legally,” he said.
State Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, chairman of House Judiciary A Committee, said he wouldn’t be opposed to mandating the ignition interlock for second offenders.
“I think it’s a little too much on the first offense,” he said. “I’m more comfortable with a repeat offender. It’s not a felony in Mississippi until the third offense.”