The Labor Day weekend is a time of backyard barbecues and other gatherings that seek to grab hold of that last bit of summer as the sun sets a little earlier each night.
Unfortunately, it’s also a time of increased incidents of impaired driving, leading to serious injury and fatal vehicle crashes on state roadways.
During the past two Labor Day weekends, state roadways experienced more fatal and serious injury crashes than any other holiday, including Memorial Day, Fourth of July or New Year’s holidays. In 2015, 38 fatal or serious injury wrecks were reported statewide during the Labor Day weekend, up from 21 over that holiday in 2014.
And despite the state’s Target Zero safety campaign to reduce the number of deaths and injuries to zero by 2030, the problem of impaired driving, involving alcohol, drugs or both, has in recent years proved harder to move the needle beyond early successes.
Compared to statistics from more than 25 years ago, Washington state has seen a reduction in crashes, injuries and fatalities. In 1990, 825 deaths from vehicle accidents were reported, 475 of which were related to drunken driving. That number, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission statistics, dropped to its lowest level in 2013 with 436 fatalities, with 221 attributed to impaired drivers. But the number of fatalities, accidents and those involving impaired drivers has increased since then, to 567 deaths in 515 wrecks, with 241 involving impaired drivers last year.
For comparison, distracted driving, such as cellphone use, was cited less frequently but has been increasing and was still a factor in 156 of the 515 fatal crashes in 2015.
Crashes and deaths made a similar jump in Snohomish County over the same period, with 32 deaths in 30 crashes in 2013, jumping to 54 deaths in 50 crashes in 2015. Impaired drivers were involved in 12 of the fatal crashes in 2013, and 24 in 2015.
Targeting impaired drivers during the Labor Day weekend, local law enforcement agencies, including police departments in Everett, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Bothell and Monroe, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington State Patrol announced extra patrols between now and Sept. 5 on roads in the county as part of the national Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign.
Tougher penalties and public campaigns are getting the message out on drinking and driving. And the efforts continue. The Legislature last year increased penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A fifth conviction for driving under the influence is now a Class B felony with a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $20,000 fine or both. DUI also is a felony for those who have previously been convicted of vehicular assault or vehicular homicide while intoxicated.
But the campaigns now need greater emphasis on impaired driving that involves alcohol and the use of drugs, whether it’s illegal drugs, legal recreational marijuana or prescription and over-the-counter medications.
A recent study of Washington drivers by NHTSA, an anonymous roadside survey of drivers in 2014 and 2015, found that a third of drivers tested positive for the presence of drugs, though drivers were not necessarily impaired.
Of the impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2015, an analysis of the state’s traffic safety data found 20 percent tested as over the .08 blood alcohol level and another 20 percent tested positive for a single drug, but the remaining 60 percent tested positive for a combination of drugs or drugs and alcohol.
“We want drivers to be as aware of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs as they are of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol,” Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said in a news release.
The danger in combining alcohol and drugs, Grondel said is that some can experience a greater level of impairment than expected.
Regardless of what’s causing the impairment, the advice remains the same to avoid an arrest or a tragedy: Don’t drive impaired; designate a sober driver, arrange a ride share or walk.
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