As drunk driving deaths in DC drop, some experts concerned ahead of New Year’s Eve

As many people prepare to celebrate the New Year this weekend, D.C. is seeing a positive trend: fewer drunk driving crashes, injuries and arrests.

According to a new report released by the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, alcohol-related traffic fatalities, injuries, crashes, and arrests decreased over the last year, said Kurt Erickson, the group’s president.

While the report, called “How Safe Are Our Roads?” tracks the figures, it’s not clear what’s causing the drop.

“They look promising, but I don’t want anybody to think the victory against drunk driving is won,” Erickson said.

The District’s drunk driving deaths decreased by 20% last year. The figures on the national level show a different picture.

Traffic fatalities jumped by a little more than 7% in 2020 and deaths involving “police-reported alcohol involvement” increased by about 9%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Furthermore, for the first six months of this year, NHTSA tracked an 18.4% boost in traffic deaths. The federal agency deems it as the “highest half-year percentage increase” ever recorded in the country.

Erickson believes COVID-19 is the reason D.C. is seeing the unexplainable decrease.

“If anything, it seems to be a byproduct of COVID,” he said.

He said the illness caused many late-night bars and restaurants to shut down, blocking the opportunity for many people to drive after a night of drinking.

Simultaneously, Erickson points to short-staffed police departments across the region, struggling to get and retain officers during the pandemic.

“If you look at the drunk driving arrest numbers, these are some of the lowest numbers in years,” he said. “Whereas we’d like to think that there are fewer people drunk driving out there, I really fear that there are fewer law enforcement members having interactions with motorists due to COVID.”

Erickson said the reports comes just as New Year’s Eve celebrations kick off, and when more than one-third of all traffic deaths involve drunk driving.

His non-profit is conducting a sober ride program to give revelers a free ride share voucher to get home safely.

“As good as our numbers and prevention efforts might be, you still need to have some safety valve during these high-consumption periods,” he said. “And, I don’t need to tell anyone that New Year’s Eve is one of those.

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