Prom, graduation and summer parties can be a lot of fun, but also add up to one of the busiest seasons for drinking and driving.
It's a deadly combination for young drivers: National reports show over two-thirds of the fatal, impaired-driving crashes each year involve drivers ages 16 to 34. Those ages 16 to 24 are most affected.
Positive peer pressure is one way Mothers Against Drunk Driving is tackling the problem. Law enforcement agencies are helping them take the safe driving message to older drivers.
The number of alcohol-related fatalities is falling slowly, advocates say, and could fall further as more people use designated drivers and app-based services, such as Uber and Lyft, to travel safely is increasing.
"We've just got to constantly get it out there that this used to be an accepted behavior, and it's not," said Lori Brown, a MADD state program specialist. "And all these deaths — 400-plus deaths each year [in North Carolina] — are 100 percent preventable."
Long road to safety
Nationally, the number of alcohol-related fatalities has fallen by over 33 percent in the last 30 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported. There were 10,497 Americans killed in 2016 — roughly one every 50 minutes — and another 290,000 injured.
The dead included 1,031 teens — roughly a third killed between April and June, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Rural roads and male drivers account for many of the crashes in North Carolina, the N.C. Governor's Highway Safety Plan reported. It noted that alcohol-related crashes also involved more motorcycles, mopeds and scooters than any other type of vehicle.
State traffic statistics show Orange County had 116 crashes in 2016, down from 157 in 2012. The 2016 crashes resulted in 73 injuries and three fatalities. Durham County also reported fewer crashes — 254, down from 271 — but injuries rose to 213 and fatalities held steady at six.
Chatham County had the fewest alcohol-related crashes of all four counties — 72 in 2016, up from 66 in 2012. Half of the crashes caused injuries in 2016, and five people were killed.
The Governor's Highway Safety Plan, which wants to cut alcohol-related fatalities by 10 percent this year, is providing DWI Enforcement Teams in counties with a large number of fatalities.
The plan also recently paid for a $23,000 DWI simulator to help the Orange County Sheriff's Office teach high school students and residents across a seven-county region about impaired driving, said Orange County Sgt. Brian Whitehurst .
Mothers Against Drunk Driving recognized the Sheriff's Office for its drunken-driving enforcement and education efforts this year with the 2017 MADD Agency of the Year award.
A panel of law enforcement and criminal justice professionals selected the department for its community involvement, creativity and innovation, belief in MADD’s mission, and dedication to law enforcement and criminal justice, MADD officials said.
The Sheriff's Office is more actively involved in addressing drunken driving through community events and traffic safety than it was a few years ago, Brown said.
"It's not always about enforcement or arresting people," she said. "All aspects of the education part are huge: Getting out in the community, talking to the kids, talking to teenagers, talking to adults about the dangers of drinking and driving. That is the big thing that they have done. They are in the community all the time talking about highway safety."
'A standard to set'
The Sheriff's Office is focusing ion deputy training, law enforcement and public education, Sheriff Charles Blackwood said. That includes partnering deputies with the district attorney's office to build stronger DWI cases and working with Chief District Court Judge Joe Buckner and a clerk to schedule DWI court days.
"I feel as the chief law enforcement officer in the county that I have a standard to set, and that standard ought to be consistent with the message that's nationwide, and that is our goal is to remove intoxicated and impaired drivers from our highways," Blackwood said. ”We owe that to the families that lost [relatives] and we owe it to the motoring public who are at risk by these individuals."
Orange County deputies already learn how to administer the standardized field sobriety test, but now some also will get specialized Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) training. DRE teaches them to administer a series of tests that determine what kind of drug someone may have taken, Whitehurst said.
He noted that more deputies also are being certified in chemical analysis breath and blood tests that detect impairing substances, reducing the number who have to respond to a stop and then show up later in court.
Training in speed-detecting LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and radar technology also helps them catch people who might be impaired, Whitehurst added, as well as those who might be wanted on other charges or committing crimes in a neighborhood.
The department had a slight decline in drunken-driving arrests last year, after three years of growth.
Sheriff's Office records show 17 people were charged with driving while impaired in 2012. The number remained steady until 2015, when 38 people were charged. Deputies charged even more — 49 — in 2016. Last year, the number of arrests dropped to 34.
Meanwhile, the Chapel Hill Police Department reported charging 256 people with impaired driving in 2015. The number has fallen in the last few years, to 214 in 2016 and 181 last year. Carrboro Police Department arrests fluctuated: 53 in 2015, 40 in 2016 and 68 last year.
Both departments joined Hillsborough Police and the Orange and Chatham County sheriff's offices Saturday for an N.C. Highway Patrol-sponsored checkpoint that netted 14 DWI arrests and a number of other charges, from driving without a license to drug possession.
They are talking with the Highway Patrol about a joint task force to coordinate more traffic safety events in the future, Blackwood said.
"We'd pick one weekend a month, and we would concentrate our efforts on DWI enforcement. Just like we do for the speed saturation patrols during the daytime, we would do that at nighttime and evening hours, depending on the obvious need," he said. "That would be less taxing on our resources and we think would be a more efficient use of manpower."
A complex problem
As it stands now, the number of people charged with DWI is just a fraction of those driving drunk.
MADD reports that Federal Bureau of Investigation arrest data shows people drive drunk more than 300,000 times a day, but only about 3,200 are arrested. Moreover, the average drunk driver has driven 80 times while impaired before being caught, FBI data shows.
Brown, Whitehurst and others said it will take more than enforcing the law to significantly reduce alcohol-related crashes. Social media and social opinion also are critical, Whitehurst said, because they reinforce the message of having a plan before heading out to drink.
Unfortunately, drivers aren't getting the same message about their prescription medicine use, Whitehurst said. The NHTSA's 2013-14 Roadside Survey found over 22 percent of drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
"I've seen several folks that were prescribed medication and took that medication as it was prescribed but did not adhere to the warning labels on the medication," Whitehurst said. "They found themselves behind the wheel and either being involved in a crash or stopped for being impaired, and really not realizing this is the prescription medication that the doctor's given me that's causing this."
▪ Total crashes: 213,605 in 2012 vs. 267,494 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related crashes: 11,242 in 2012 vs. 11,264 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related fatalities: 426 in 2012 vs. 402 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related, non-fatal injuries: 8,497 in 2012 vs. 8,189 in 2016
▪ Time to next crash: 0.0 hours
▪ Time to next injury: 0.1 hours
▪ Time to next fatal injury: 6.3 hours
▪ Crash cost per hour: $2,928,043
▪ Total crashes: 2,451 in 2012 vs. 2,795 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related crashes: 157 in 2012 vs. 116 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related fatalities: 6 in 2012 vs. 3 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related, non-fatal injuries: 85 in 2012 vs. 73 in 2016
▪ Time to next crash: 2.9 hours
▪ Time to next injury: 7.7 hours
▪ Time to next fatal injury: 796.4 hours
▪ Crash cost per hour: $26,006
▪ Total crashes: 8,035 in 2012 vs. 10,199 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related crashes: 271 in 2012 vs. 254 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related fatalities: 6 in 2012 vs. 6 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related, non-fatal injuries: 192 in 2012 vs. 213 in 2016
▪ Time to next crash: 0.6 hours
▪ Time to next injury: 2.2 hours
▪ Time to next fatal injury: 350.4 hours
▪ Crash cost per hour: $75,035
▪ Total crashes: 1,230 in 2012 vs. 1,495 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related crashes: 66 in 2012 vs. 72 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related fatalities: 3 in 2012 vs. 5 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related, non-fatal injuries: 42 in 2012 vs. 36 in 2016
▪ Time to next crash: 5.0 hours
▪ Time to next injury: 16.7 hours
▪ Time to next fatal injury: 673.8 hours
▪ Crash cost per hour: $20,589
▪ Total crashes: 23,589 in 2012 vs. 31,026 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related crashes: 987 in 2012 vs. 1,010 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related fatalities: 34 in 2012 vs. 31 in 2016
▪ Alcohol-related, non-fatal injuries: 627 in 2012 vs. 723 in 2016
▪ Time to next crash: 0.2 hours
▪ Time to next injury: 0.7 hours
▪ Time to next fatal injury: 122.8 hours
▪ Crash cost per hour: $216,348