Monday, April 9, 2012

Alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Kansas down

By SHAUN HITTLE, The Lawrence Journal-World

Kansas saw a sharp decrease in the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities this year — from 138 in 2010 to 76 in 2011 — according to preliminary data released by the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Can Kansas chalk up the good news to the state’s new DUI ignition interlock law, in effect since July?

It’s a little early to tell, said Pete Bodyk, traffic safety manager for KDOT. The law requires even first-time DUI offenders to install an ignition interlock on any automobile they drive.

“Hopefully it’s the start of a downward trend,” Bodyk said.

Kansas had lagged behind the country in reducing alcohol-related fatalities, seeing increases in recent years as numbers dropped across the country. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities averaged 116 between 2000 and 2010 in the state.

Kansas also saw about a 12 percent drop in alcohol-related accidents, from 2,801 in 2010 to 2,463 in 2011.

Bodyk said the decreases are probably the result of a combination of factors, including the new law and the intense media coverage of it. Bodyk also cited increased commitment by police agencies across the state to crack down on drunken driving.

“I think law enforcement is doing a better job,” Bodyk said.

Karen Housewright, director of field operations for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, praised efforts to curb drunken driving in Kansas, which joined 14 others states to enact a first-time offender ignition interlock law. Most states have some form of ignition interlock law, but some only apply to repeat DUI offenders.

While it’s impossible to say exactly how the law affected the numbers, the growing evidence is clear, Housewright said.

“We know they (ignition interlocks) save lives,” Housewright said. “The evidence is hard to refute.”

A recently released study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that an ignition interlock law in Washington state reduced DUI reoffending for first-time DUI offenders by 11 percent.

But another finding from the study was that only one-third of those convicted under Washington’s law actually applied for an ignition interlock. That raises the possibility that some drivers convicted of a DUI might continue to simply drive without the interlock, said Anne McCart, co-author of the study.

Drivers convicted of a DUI must apply to the Kansas Department of Revenue for a modified license and prove they have an ignition interlock installed. Between July 1 and March 2, the state received 2,991 such applications, said Jeannine Koranda, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Revenue.

There are additional updates to the last year’s DUI law being considered by the Kansas Legislature that could further strengthen the law, Bodyk said.

Senate Bill 453, currently in committee, would make refusing an alcohol breath test a misdemeanor that carries the same penalty as a positive test. Currently, refusing a breath test results is an automatic one-year license suspension, but it is not a criminal violation.