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Drunk Driving Targeted During Holidays

Community groups, police offer alternatives and warnings to combat drinking and driving.

In a month when 37.5 percent of all traffic deaths are alcohol-related, local law enforcement and community organizations are running special programs to curb drinking and driving in Northern Virginia.

To deter would-be drunk drivers, the Fairfax County Police Department has kicked off its annual Safe December program, an effort to put as many as 14 extra patrol officers on the streets to watch for aggressive and reckless driving.

"This time of year, with all of the office parties and end-of-the-year celebrations, people tend to drink a little more," said Lt. Mark Payton of the traffic division of the Fairfax County Police Department. "We're trying to get information out, to get people thinking before they might get behind the wheel after drinking a little too much."

During the Safe December program's first week of operation, officers issued 249 traffic citations and 25 charges of driving while intoxicated, according to Payton.

Police that were part of last year's Safe December initiative issued more than 1,000 citations and arrested 142 people on charges of driving while intoxicated, according to the Fairfax County Police Department's public information office.

Despite the increased numbers, the campaign isn't solely about making arrests and issuing tickets, Payton added.

"This also has a deterring effect on other drivers," he said. "Imagine all those people who drive past and see the cruisers pulled over and someone doing a sobriety test."

"That image alone should keep people thinking twice before they get into a car after having too much to drink."

BUT PREVENTION efforts don't stop with officers simply making more arrests. To give residents a final way out the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP) has launched its SoberRide program, offering holiday party-goers free cab rides home in the evening.

The non-profit effort, which has taken place in Northern Virginia during the holiday season since 1993, aims to give people an alternative to risky and illegal driving.

"You need to have some safety valve for this holiday when there is a higher level of alcohol consumption than normal," said Kurt Erickson, president of WRAP. "This is a program designed to give those people an option who might otherwise put themselves, their loved ones or others at risk of serious injury."

Last year, SoberRide, which operates throughout Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Southern Maryland, provided more than 2,500 cab rides to people looking for a safe ride home, according to a press release.

Each year WRAP pays approximately $60,000 a year in cab fares to operate the program, Erickson said, adding that the Washington, D.C. area's rate of alcohol-related accidents is lower than the national average.

"It's a fairly large project financially-speaking, but I think it's one of the reasons why we have been so successful in keeping the [drunk driving accident] rate down," Erickson said.

THE OPERATION of the two programs isn't as powerful in curbing drinking and driving as the long-term messages that it sends to residents, according to Payton and Erickson.

"Ultimately people need to be responsible in life ... and part of being responsible is in having a plan if you plan on drinking in the evening," Payton said. "There are a lot of consequences involved with drinking and driving, not just in safety concerns but also in being arrested."

Fortunately for residents of Northern Virginia a range of public transportation options and cab services exist as alternatives to driving.

"Whether it's getting on a bus, or calling up [SoberRide] and getting a free ride in a taxi," Payton said, "it sure beats a ride in a police car."