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LIGHTS REFLECT SEASON FREE OF DWI DEATHS

'Twas the night before New Year's Eve, and all through the region, not a single red bulb had marred the holiday season.

The five Trees of Hope symbolizing the local DWI watch remained glowing with all-white bulbs -- and no red bulbs -- Tuesday.

That means that no alcohol-related deaths had been reported on Western New York roads since the Nov. 25 start of the holiday season.

"We have none through Monday noon, so it's five weeks running," John F. Sullivan, director of the Erie County Stop-DWI Program, said Tuesday.

Local advocates in the fight against DWI hope that recent tradition and statistics hold true, leaving them dreaming of a white New Year's.

Trees bearing hundreds of miniature white bulbs have been set up in or near five Erie County high schools and community centers to symbolize the purity and peace of having no DWI deaths. Any such death from Nov. 25 to Jan. 9 will be marked by a larger red bulb on each tree.

Of course, getting to Jan. 9 with no alcohol-related driving deaths means getting through New Year's Eve, which most people would expect to be the deadliest night of the year.

That hasn't proven true, at least in the last few years. Sullivan, who tracks DWI deaths in Erie County, knows of no alcohol-related fatalities on New Year's Eve or early New Year's Day -- dating back at least to 1990.

There may be more people partying on New Year's Eve than any other night of the year, but the public also has become more conscious of the dangers of mixing alcohol and driving.

"People plan for a way to get home if they're out drinking," Sullivan said. "For many people, it's one of the few times they know they're going to be drinking."

That means that local hotel rooms get booked, that many people celebrate at home, that others line up designated drivers and that some people just don't drink if they have to drive.

On Tuesday, Sullivan provided a list of the number of alcohol-related deaths in Erie County since 1982. That figure, which was a whopping 72 in 1982, dipped down into the 40s, 30s and even the high 20s through 1994. The county recorded only 19 alcohol-related deaths in 1995, but the figure skyrocketed to 45 in 1996.

"I can't explain it," Sullivan said of the last two years. "The county-wide level is such a small sample, a few really bad accidents can skew the numbers considerably, and the absence of them also can skew the numbers."

But the downward slope of the numbers is obvious. From 1991 through 1996, the average number of alcohol-related deaths in the county was 30.3, compared to 44.1 from 1982 through 1990.

"First of all, I think the social war has been won," Sullivan explained. "It isn't acceptable to say, 'I parked my car sideways or on the lawn.' It's not funny anymore."

That change has been accompanied by tougher DWI laws and tougher enforcement of existing laws, Sullivan said.

Even though it's expensive for police to crack down harder on drunken driving, Sullivan pointed out that those drivers may be the single biggest hazard to the public's safety in many suburbs.

The DWI vigil will continue a full week past New Year's. But as Sullivan said, "We should have a Tree of Hope for 52 weeks."

Also on Tuesday, State Assembly Republican Leader Thomas M. Reynolds of Springville proposed a tough new DWI law targeting the most intoxicated drivers.

Under that bill, anyone registering at least a .18 percent blood-alcohol level would face a felony charge. The proposed law also would restrict plea bargaining, ensuring at least a misdemeanor conviction in such cases, he said.

"While we've made tremendous strides over the years in reducing the scourge of drunken driving, the fact that alcohol-related accidents continue to take innocent lives means we must do all we can to permanently rid our roads of drunken drivers," Reynolds stated. "By targeting the worst offenders with felony sanctions, I believe we'll begin to do just that."

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