Statistics show New Year's Eve, Day among deadliest for alcohol-related traffic fatalities in past years.
Figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveal that nearly half of all traffic fatalities during the past two New Year's Eve nights were caused by alcohol, and Iowa anti-drunk driving groups are working to drive those figures down this season.
Of the 230 total traffic deaths which occurred on New Year's Eve in 2000 and 2001, 46 percent of those (107 fatalities) were due to alcohol-related causes.
In addition, 114 were killed on New Year's Day in 2000 from alcohol-related crashes, and 1,788 people died in alcohol-related crashes from the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve in 2000.
Bill Shackelford, president of the Polk County Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) said one of the reasons for New Year's Eve being such a deadly holiday on the roads can be traced to the historical relationship between drinking heavily while celebrating in America.
"Simply put, it has become a national tradition to include alcohol in celebrations and parties," Shackelford said. "Those traditions date back for centuries, and becoming intoxicated on New Year's Eve has become one of those traditions over the years.
"That is why there is so much drinking and driving, and that is also why there are so many people who die in alcohol-related crashes over the entire period from Thanksgiving leading up to New Year's Day."
Alda Helvey, a member of the same Des Moines-area MADD chapter, agreed with Shackelford.
"It's deadly because a lot of people act irresponsibly and drink and drive during New Year's Eve," Alda Helvey, a member of Iowa MADD, said. "It's a time when people want to celebrate, and instead of being responsible and either not drinking heavily or contacting a designated driver, they tend to be irresponsible. That's an attitude that we're trying to help change."
The MADD representatives said one of the reasons New Year's Eve has seen a large amount of accidents in a short amount of time is the increase in promotions in bars such as free or reduced beer for certain time periods which seem to encourage intoxication.
"We're seeing a big jump in the amount of places that are having free beer, penny pints or all-you-can drink nights, and the same thing's going to happen on New Year's Eve," Shackelford said. "Those promotions don't combine well with New Year's Eve, which is the most deadly in terms of looking at a short period of time.
"There's a lot of people becoming intoxicated at the same time with these promotions, and then many of them drive home. That's not good."
"It seems many of them are targeted toward young people, who have limited funds, and they then go to those places for the sole purpose of becoming intoxicated," Helvey said. "Then, of course, they drive home after the night is over, and accidents are much more likely to happen. It's a really bad thing, and these promotions seem to be happening more frequently nowadays, especially around holidays like New Year's Eve and New Year's Day."
While other holidays such as Memorial Day and Thanksgiving have higher total numbers of alcohol-related fatalities, statistics tend to support Shackelford's statement that the beginning of the new year is one of the deadliest periods of time.
While the five-day Thanksgiving period from November 22 to November 27 in 2000 saw 257 people die in alcohol-related crashes, the 189 killed in the 36-hour period of New Year's Eve and New Year's Day at the beginning of 2000 was 73 percent of that five-day total.
As one of the larger cities in northwest Iowa, Storm Lake may also have a higher chance for drunk driving accidents to occur over this New Year's holiday period.
Shackelford said places of higher population, such as Storm Lake, are more likely to experience alcohol-related deaths than smaller towns such as Newell or Albert City simply because there are more people who could be intoxicated after bars close and parties shut down in town.
"It's a problem everywhere, but it's more of a problem in areas of concentration, because there are more cars around there," Shackelford said. "Rural people drink too, but the chances of getting in an accident aren't as great simply because there aren't as many cars."
Despite the higher incidence of accidents in larger towns, Helvey said that doesn't mean small communities are immune to alcohol-related deaths over New Year's.
"It's everywhere," Helvey said. "It's in every little tiny town in Iowa. There are more people in Des Moines, but it can happen in Storm Lake or any other small city in northwest Iowa just as easily."
While Iowa's legal blood-alcohol-limit is currently .10 percent, Shackelford said this New Year's holiday may be the last one in which that statute is in effect.
A new .08 blood-alcohol-level bill, which would reduce the legal blood alcohol level from .10 to .08 percent, could be enacted this year in Iowa, and Shackelford said he is optimistic about the motion having a positive impact in Iowa if passed.
"Nationwide, MADD estimates having a .08 law has saved between 500 and 700 lives," Shackelford said. "We're excited about the possibility of it becoming law this year, and I think that's going to save lives not only at New Year's, but throughout the entire year."
Helvey said MADD is mad about the high amount of drunk driving deaths over the past few years, and hopes there will be no news about alcohol-related deaths at the beginning of 2002.
"The number of deaths we've seen from drunk driving over New Year's is simply unacceptable," Helvey said. "We're going to try to eliminate those numbers as much as we can."