WHEN you’re trying to make a point, sometimes it’s best to let the numbers do the talking. These numbers come from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, which tracks, categorizes and reports each year on motor vehicle accidents.
In a year that saw the total number of traffic fatalities in Virginia decrease by 4 percent (from 843 in 2017 to 819 in 2018), the number of alcohol-related fatalities rose by 12 percent (from 248 in 2017 to 278 last year). That means 34 percent of all Virginia highway fatalities in 2018 were alcohol-related.
In other words, if there had been no alcohol-involved fatalities in 2018, the total number of deaths would have been 541, not 819.
And we’re not even talking about the 4,475 injuries that DMV reports were suffered in alcohol-related accidents—injuries that may have left people temporarily or permanently disabled or in pain, and possibly out of work for a period of time, or maybe forever.
Although DMV does report that about 45 percent of fatal, alcohol-related crashes involved more than one vehicle, it doesn’t specify how many of those lives lost were the poor innocent souls who were in the way when a drunken driver crossed the center line or ran a red light or drove the wrong way on a divided highway.
As long as people have been driving, some of them have been driving drunk. Thankfully, the trend line of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has been downward over time as people become educated about the problem and act accordingly. With fewer such accidents, the spotlight intensifies on each one that does occur.
In addition to tough drunken driving laws, sobriety checkpoints and the use of ignition interlocks, it is clear that treatment of alcohol abuse, especially for repeat DUI offenders, must play a key role in efforts to reduce drunken driving and related fatalities.
For two decades, Fredericksburg General District Court has operated a special DUI court to focus on and reduce the deadly toll for which those who drink and drive are responsible. The Fredericksburg area DUI court marked its 20th anniversary earlier this month.
In its current configuration, which includes Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George counties in addition to Fredericksburg, the initiative has worked with 4,400 DUI referrals to help them combat their alcohol problems and hopefully prevent them from harming themselves and others.
DUI court operates similarly to Fredericksburg’s drug court by focusing on treatment rather than punishment alone.
There’s no shortage of people who need help with their alcohol dependency. The system is designed to separate those who made a bad decision one night about driving home after drinking, and those for whom drunken driving is a persistent and recurring problem.
Any driver convicted of a DUI must take part in a Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program, or ASAP, which will determine if the individual is suffering from a chronic alcohol dependency issue. If so, the person is referred to DUI court.
According to Rappahannock Area ASAP Director Kevin Ortegel, there are 2 million people across the country who have three or more DUI convictions, which suggests a systemic failure of the existing criminal justice system to either help repeat offenders turn their lives around or somehow keep them off the road.
Based on Virginia’s 2018 population estimate of about 8.5 million people, the commonwealth is home to about 52,300 of those three-time-plus offenders.
According to Ortegel, people who have been through DUI court are 19 times less likely than other offenders to face a subsequent DUI charge.
As a former Rappahannock Area ASAP director and organizer of the DUI court initiative, Carol Harris says she’s seen how the program helps redirect offenders from a path that could eventually cost them their jobs, families and possibly their lives.
Longtime DUI court Judge John Stevens said he’s experienced the futility of “seeing the same person more than once, twice, three times for a DUI, [and] it doesn’t seem like you’re getting anywhere as far as solving the problem.”
It only makes sense that incorporating treatment into the process will both help the individual offender and address the overall public goal of reducing alcohol-related fatalities.
With the state’s only other DUI court based in Staunton and working with Valley ASAP, there are opportunities in all other areas of the state to establish DUI courts and save even more lives.