A longtime campaign against drunken drivers apparently helped knock down alcohol-related traffic deaths to zero last year in Niagara County, according to police officials.
The county has averaged four alcohol-related fatalities from 1995 through 1999, said county STOP-DWI Coordinator Mary R. Boron. But 2000 marked the first time in at least 19 years in which there were no alcohol-related traffic deaths recorded in the county. The figure peaked at 21 in 1983, said Boron.
Overall traffic deaths also declined to 17 in 2000, down from 20 in 1999 and 24 in 1998, she said.
In the meantime, drunken driving arrests remained at 925 last year, the same as in 1999, but an increase from the 903 recorded in 1998. DWI arrests, however, have been much lower the past three years than the 1,188 made in 1996 and the 1,275 in 1995, Boron said.
Area police officials say they believe the aggressive enforcement of drunken driving laws and related anti-drinking and driving education initiatives have contributed to the drop in fatal accidents.
Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein said more than a decade of education and publicity, and a tough attitude against drunken drivers by police has made a difference.
"The message has been sent, and the police are not going to let you go (if you're caught driving while intoxicated)," Beilein said. "Years before, a police officer might cut you a break and take you home instead of making an arrest. That would never happen now. I think the message about the consequences is clear, and the media had done a good job publicizing the problem."
But Beilin was cautious. "I don't think it is realistic to believe that zero will stay forever," he said. "The chronic drunk is still out there driving and is still a problem."
"I think education and enforcement have been very critical in the decline in the number of DWI-related fatalities" and the large number of arrests, said Niagara Falls Police Lt. Les Kachurek, co-director of the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy. "I believe that aggressive enforcement programs like DWI blitzes by area police agencies is one of the major reasons.
He also said people are aware of police crackdowns on drunken driving and that "it's expensive to be charged with DWI. The financial ramifications involved with a DWI arrest like attorney's fees and the increase in insurance premiums act as a deterrent," he said.
Consequently, he said, drivers make alternative arrangements for getting around if they know they'll be out drinking.
"I also think that organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD) don't really get enough credit for all the educational information they have disseminated through the county's schools and various factions of the public sector (over the years). I think that has helped a lot," Kachurek said. "I think that all of these things collectively have had an impact."
Lockport Traffic Capt. John Cross credited speeding blitzes, DWI checkpoints and DWI roving patrols for discouraging people from drinking and driving.
"A big part of that is because the state is making more grants available so police agencies can afford to pay their officers the overtime money it takes to do it," Cross said. "Otherwise, local municipal budgets would not have a built-in allowance for things like DWI enforcement programs."
Beilein said police officials are hopeful that traffic deaths will remain low "because people know it is a taboo. Where 15 or 20 years ago, while drunk driving was not acceptable, people were more tolerant about drunk drivers. It was understood that people got drunk and drove sometimes. I don't think that perception exists anymore."
Countywide, there were 6,803 traffic accidents, including fender-benders, last year, the highest number recorded in at least the past six years. There were 6,315 accidents recorded in 1999 and 5,612 in 1998, according to Boron.
Cross said he is hopeful that 2001 will be a safer year on area roadways.
"We only had one accident (in Lockport) in January that involved DWI," he said. "I wish every month was like that. And that's a month where we have a big holiday (New Year's Day) associated with alcohol consumption."
"I think the message and the statistics are getting out. I think a lot of people who know they are going out and plan to use alcohol are taking limousines or are using a designated driver."