DUI traffic fatalities up sharply in Kansas

The number of alcohol-related traffic deaths in Kansas rose 36.1 percent last year, the second-largest increase in the country, a new federal study shows.

State accident records suggest that the jump was not a statistical blip.

Over the past decade, as the number of highway deaths in Kansas has dropped to an all-time low, the number of alcohol-related fatalities has been rising.

Those familiar with the system said they weren't surprised by the numbers.

"I think its just a result of the fact that our DUI system is broken," said Mary Ann Khoury, head of the DUI Victim Center of Kansas. "If something that's broken never gets fixed, it just gets worse, and that's probably what we're seeing."

Sedgwick County District Judge Phil Journey, who studied the issue as a defense lawyer and a state senator, said he thinks the report will help fuel a growing movement to overhaul state DUI laws.

"The numbers could be the result of better investigative techniques — catching more cases that are alcohol-related," he said. "Or it could be that there are more people out there who are drinking and driving and killing off other citizens.

"It's something that should get everybody's attention."

The report, prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that from 2007 to 2008, the fatality rate in the United States declined from 1.36 to 1.25 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. The rate of alcohol-impaired fatalities dropped from 0.43 to 0.40 per 100 million miles traveled.

In Kansas, the report said, the overall fatality rate dropped from 1.38 to 1.30 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. But the number of alcohol-related deaths rose from 0.36 to 0.49 per 100 million miles traveled.

Kansas' 36.1 percent year-to-year increase was second only to the 40.0 percent jump recorded in New Hampshire.

Kansas ranked 27th in the overall fatality rate and 16th in the alcohol-related fatality rate.

While Kansas and six other states saw a jump in the rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths in 2008, 40 states saw their rates decline.

Decreases of 20 percent or more were recorded in Vermont, Wisconsin, Maine, Nebraska, Minnesota, Connecticut, South Dakota, Arizona and the District of Columbia.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week said states that made the most progress on impaired driving fatalities had been the most aggressive in arresting and prosecuting offenders, and in using patrols and checkpoints to keep their roads safe.

Chuck Hurley, the chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, also noted that improvements were made in states such as New Mexico and Arizona, which have adopted tough laws using breath-monitoring ignition interlock devices for offenders.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have set a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 as the legal limit for drivers.

Pete Bodyk, chief of the Kansas Department of Transportation's traffic safety bureau, said the federal agency that compiled the report labels some deaths as alcohol-related when there is only a suspicion that alcohol was a factor in a crash. He said KDOT counts only the cases in which alcohol use has been confirmed.

By either measure, alcohol-related deaths were up in Kansas in 2008. Bodyk said it was possible that a sagging economy resulted in more alcohol consumption and that led to more impaired driving.

"One thing we do like to point out is that 2008 had the lowest number of fatalities in Kansas since they started keeping records" in the late 1940s, he said.

The state recorded 385 traffic deaths in 2008, down 7 percent from 2007 and down 29 percent from 1999.

Bodyk and Khoury are both members of the Kansas DUI Commission, which has been meeting this year to look at ways to improve state DUI laws.

The commission was formed last year after the Kansas Substance Abuse Policy Board looked into all facets of drunken-driving laws and concluded that the system needs a major overhaul.

The commission is expected to issue an interim report to the 2010 Kansas Legislature and forward a final set of recommendations the following year.

"We're looking at driver's license hearings, sentencing guidelines; we looking at all kinds of things," Khoury said. "Record-keeping. Treatment. I don't know what we're going to come up with, but we've got our work cut out for us."

The Substance Abuse Policy Board was created at the request of Journey, who said he tried to get a handle on the shortcomings of state DUI laws as a state senator but found that the issues were too complex for one legislator to tackle.

"It's a very complicated issue with a lot of moving parts," he said.

Bodyk said the commission hopes to address all aspects of DUI laws.

"Hopefully, it's not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution," he said.