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Oct 19, 1993

DUI DEATHS DOWN SHARPLY SINCE ’82 BUT FOUR RECENT FATALITIES HAVE RENEWED CALLS FOR MORE ACTION.

In a recent 10-day span, four people died and three others were critically injured in alcohol-related car crashes in South Hampton Roads.

The accidents stirred outrage, brought cries for tougher laws and caused the phones to ring almost nonstop at the offices of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Virginians Opposing Drunk Driving.

But statistics released this week indicate that laws now on the books and the lobbying efforts and public awareness campaigns of such organizations have produced dramatic results.

In recent years, the number of alcohol-related fatalities has fallen sharply in Hampton Roads, in Virginia and across the nation:

Between 1982 and 1992, the number of drinking-related deaths nationwide dropped by about 8,500.

During the same decade, the percentage of all auto fatalities in Virginia that were alcohol-related fell by almost 10 percent, from 52.8 percent to 43.1 percent.

In 1990, 58 people were killed by drunken drivers in South Hampton Roads – 59 percent of all driving fatalities. Last year, that number had fallen to 35 – 40 percent – in the cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk.

Experts attribute the decline to tougher law enforcement and more awareness, particularly among teenagers, of the dangers of drinking and driving.

Lillian DeVenny, who heads and helped form Virginians Opposing Drunk Driving, said her organization and groups like it deserve some credit for that trend. “We do believe that what we’re doing is working,” she said.

But DeVenny and others point out that their work is far from over, as the two recent fatal accidents, one in Virginia Beach and the other in Suffolk, clearly show.

“We’ve still got a segment of the population out there who’s not listening,” said DeVenny, of Virginia Beach. “We’ve come a long way and the figures show it. But, oh my God, we’ve still got a ways to go . . . Any time we see what we’ve just seen, we know the drunk drivers are still out there.

“The mood is indignation and anger. I don’t think in all the years I’ve been doing this I’ve seen the public respond in such a positive manner. These cases have set people off. The public is crying out, `We’ve had enough.’ ”

A 23-year-old woman called to tell DeVenny that two family friends had just been killed in West Virginia. “It’s time I get involved,” she said.

Two homebound women offered to stuff envelopes. Survivors of accidents involving drunken drivers have called to talk about their experiences. People offered to go to Richmond to lobby for tougher laws. Others wanted statistics for papers or speeches.

The outrage may have an impact on the 1994 General Assembly, which begins next month. Several lawmakers plan to show up armed with bills to further combat highway carnage.

State Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, who saw his share of fatal accidents as a Virginia Beach police officer, has been active in efforts to keep drunken drivers off the roads.

“It doesn’t affect most Virginians until someone they know or someone in their family is killed or hurt by a drunk driver,” he said. “Unfortunately, society as a whole is still willing to tolerate the drunk driver. Until that changes, we can do anything we want at the legislative level and we’re not going to resolve the problem.

“We have to have that commitment that it’s not going to be tolerated to go out and drink and then drive. I can’t think of anything else that society accepts that we know kills people.”

Stolle said citizens need to remember that they have a voice in getting the laws changed through their lawmakers.

“These bills will save lives,” Stolle said.

Del. Glenn Croshaw, D-Virginia Beach, says he is horrified by each new report of a death or injury caused by a drunken driver, especially since laws he believes could have made a difference have failed in past legislative sessions.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “Many of these fatal accidents that are alcohol-related are multiple-conviction individuals. There is just story after story.”

Croshaw is convinced that a law that would allow police officers to pull a suspected drunken driver’s license at the scene is a good way to save lives.

“We’ve said as a society, `We don’t want you drinking and driving,’ ” Croshaw said. “We need to get serious about it . . . I think what we’re moving to in society is zero tolerance for everyone.”

Some of the calls into local MADD and VODD offices are from people with children too young to drive. Their parents are thinking ahead.

“I don’t care what age you are,” said Brenda Vaccarelli, founder and current president of the Peninsula chapter of MADD. “Alcohol-related fatalities don’t discriminate. They affect everyone . . . Alcohol-related deaths have decreased, but one is one too many. That’s the bottom line. We want to be put out of business.”

Michael Goodove, chairman of the Southside Community Action Team of MADD, said the latest statistics reflect enhanced public awareness of the problem.

“People use designated drivers much more,” he said. “They think before they drink. People are more aware that when you get behind the wheel after you’ve been drinking, it’s the same thing as firing a weapon into a crowd.”