Connecticut saw a decrease in the number of drunk-driving deaths in 2014, but the state still has one of the highest rates in the country of motor-vehicle crash fatalities involving drivers under the influence.
Traffic accidents with legally intoxicated drivers, defined by Connecticut law as those with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 or higher, accounted for 97 out of 248 — or 39 percent — of total traffic fatalities in Connecticut in 2014, according to new data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Released in November 2015, the NHTSA’s statistics indicate that this rate has declined since 2013, when 41 percent of the state’s traffic deaths involved drunk drivers. This year, state leaders hope to further lower the rate of accidents caused by drunk drivers by bolstering education outreach, media campaigns and enforcement practices.
The state currently has several strategies in place to combat drunk driving, Connecticut Department of Transportation Transportation Planner Gene Interlandi said. Connecticut offers comprehensive DUI enforcement grants to all police departments, which allows them to fund roving patrols and DUI checkpoints. The state also campaigns against drunk driving through the media and cooperation with public-safety advocates, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Last July, Connecticut also implemented a program that requires past DUI offenders to install ignition interlock devices in their cars, closing a loophole that allowed some drivers to avoid the requirement, Interlandi said, adding that the state hopes to see fewer repeat offenses in the new year.
Ignition interlock devices require vehicle owners to pass a breathalyzer test before starting their cars. According to Kara Macek, director of communications for the Governors Highway Safety Association, ignition interlock policies are one of the best measures states can take to combat drunk driving.
“The GHSA strongly supports aggressive ignition interlock policies, which have been shown to be a good deterrent for repeat offenders,” Macek said. “The cornerstone of drunk driving and other behavioral issues is enforcement — strong laws, coupled with public education and outreach.”
Despite the decrease in fatalities, the NHTSA data does not show an overall downward trend. Instead, Connecticut’s rate has fluctuated between the high 30s and low 40s since 2010. These variations are likely due to Connecticut being a small state, in which a few incidents can easily cause the numbers to fluctuate, said Joseph Cristalli, transportation principal safety program coordinator at the Connecticut DOT Office of Highway Safety.
Only four states ranked higher than Connecticut in the percentage of fatalities involving drunk drivers. Massachusetts, North Dakota and Texas all had the highest rate, at 41 percent, according to the NHTSA report. These states were followed by Delaware with 40 percent. The lowest rate of 20 percent belonged to Vermont. Connecticut’s numbers have placed the state above the national average of 31 percent.
Now that the state has reinvigorated its efforts to decrease drunk driving, an additional concern for police is better documentation of alcohol-impaired driving, said Putnam Police Chief and Connecticut Police Chiefs Association President Rick Hayes. Police officers do not perform standard field sobriety tests or breathalyzer tests on the drunk driver when fatalities are involved, so these BACs often go unmeasured until medical autopsies are performed. But because the BACs from autopsies are only given to the police when criminal violations are involved, many of the BACs are documented but unreported, Putnam said.
The NHTSA data is compiled for every state’s department of transportation and submitted using the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Currently, Connecticut’s FARS analysts are transitioning into electronic record-keeping in the past year. Shifting to electronic data-keeping is a shift towards providing more up-to-date records for public officials, said Harley Polverelli, the primary FARS analyst for the Connecticut DOT’s Crash Data and Analysis department.
State analysts submit FARS data to NHTSA twice yearly.