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Drunken driving deaths up after 10-year drop

Officials say issue needs return to spotlight

December 30, 1996
Web posted at: 10:15 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Gary Tuchman

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The number of people killed in alcohol-related car accidents went up in 1995 after dropping steadily each previous year for a decade.

According to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 24,000 people died in alcohol-related accidents in 1986. By 1994, the number had dropped to 16,580. Then, in 1995, the numbers went up -- 17,274 people died in alcohol-related car accidents.

People in the forefront of the battle against drunken driving say they are frustrated and disappointed by the report.

Anne Donnelly is among them. Two years ago, her 17-year-old son Wesley went out for a drive with a friend five days before Christmas. As they drove down the street a car driven by a drunk driver slammed into them.

"It was all over within 60 seconds of the time he left the house," she said, crying.

Wesley died 15 days later. The driver who killed him was convicted of drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter, and sentenced to one and a half to three years in jail.

"The last thing that I did with my two sons together was we bought a Christmas tree, and we put it up. (When) I came home from the intensive care unit on Christmas night, I threw all the ornaments off and threw the tree away. And that was the last we've ever had Christmas," Donnelly said.

Thomas Louizou, a regional administrator with the NHTSA, said a number of factors may be to blame, but they all add up to one thing: drunken driving is less in the spotlight than it was 10 years ago.

For example, public service announcements are not getting as much air time as they used to on television stations and networks. And police are setting up fewer sobriety checkpoints.

"In the early '80s, when the citizen activists groups really began and states started to really make their laws a lot tougher, penalties were more severe, and punishment was meted out in a swift manner," Louizou said. "We've kind of lost that momentum now, and I think there's somewhat of a complacency."

Fighting drunken driving is simply not the hot issue it was a few years ago. Those who have seen the carnage firsthand say society has to work harder to stop the increasing number of deaths.

"It's going to have to be a joint effort in public awareness, in increasing sanctions, toughening up the laws, and enforcing the laws we already have on the books," said Katherine Prescott, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The driver who killed Wesley Donnelly might be out of prison as early as July. The possibility that he could be freed so soon only makes one mother's pain harder to take.

"It's been almost two years, and everyone's life has gone on, but ours is stuck in time in that instant," Donnelly said. "It will never be the same."


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