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California crackdown on drunken drivers is getting results, officials say
SACRAMENTO, California (CNN) -- Alcohol-related traffic deaths in California have dropped 61 percent since 1980, despite an increase of 15 percent in the number of drivers and miles driven, the California Highway Patrol says.
"Your chances of surviving on a California freeway are much better than the U.S. average, in part because the cops and the CHP are out there doing what they can to keep the drunks from killing you," said Highway Patrol Commissioner Spike Helmick.
The sanctions for drunken driving are swift and steep in California, where a law officer can yank a driver's license on the spot if the driver tests drunk.
"We evaluated the law after it was implemented in 1990 and found that it has a reduction of about 15 percent on alcohol related matters," said Cliff Helander, research manager for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The chances of drunken drivers being arrested again are cut in half if the drivers complete a treatment program, officials said.
Helmick also credits public acceptance of measures such as sobriety checkpoints, designated drivers and alcohol-free high-school graduations with the drop in fatalities.
"Those things have changed," Helmick said. "It wasn't that way 25 years ago."
'It is a violent crime'
While drunken driving has been illegal in California since 1911, enforcement of the law was lax until the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving set out to change society's perception of the drunk driver.
"It's not just a car accident. It is a crime, and it is a violent crime," said Rebecca Bearden, a member of MADD. "And we have worked very hard and have succeeded in convincing society that that is so."
Bearden joined MADD after the man she was going to marry was killed in a crash with a drunken driver.
"We were hit head-on by a wrong-way drunk driver, who had a .28 (blood alcohol reading) and two priors, Bearden said. My fiance was killed. I was very critically injured and not expected to live."
Grim national statistics
The National Transportation Safety Board reports that 38 percent of all highway fatalities in the United States involve alcohol.
Agency statistics indicate that in the past decade, 183,000 people nationwide died in alcohol-related crashes. That's more than three times the number of U.S. lives lost in the Vietnam War.
California still arrests a drunken driver every six minutes, according to Highway Patrol statistics. And one in 50 California drivers knows someone who was killed by a drunk driver.
San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre contributed to this report.
Drowsiness takes toll on motorists like alcohol, sleep experts say
California Highway Patrol
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