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Drunken Driving Issue Feared Lost in Y2K Hype

Boston, MA – Even with warnings as blatant as Australia’s and New Zealand’s, ”If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot,” a Harvard University researcher said he fears the messages aimed at curbing drunken driving might be getting lost in the hype surrounding the new millennium.

Jay Winsten, associate dean of the university’s School of Public Health, said the frenzy over terrorism threats and the fear of computer-stalling Y2K bugs are overshadowing the dangers of drinking and driving.

”Compare this to a typical New Year’s, when the only thing to worry about is who’s driving,” Winsten said.

The days leading up to New Year’s Eve are generally filled with public service reminders about the importance of designated drivers. But this year’s excitement about the new millennium could obscure the message, possibly leading to more deaths on the highway, he said.

”People now have to worry about, `Is my electricity working? What about terrorism?,”’ said Winsten, who released a survey yesterday of government efforts in the United States and abroad to curb drunken driving. ”There’s less attention to drinking and driving.”

He described the ”bloody idiot” government-sponsored signs in New Zealand and Australia, as well as a more tactful Irish public safety slogan: ”At any level of alcohol consumption you are impaired.”

In Alberta, Canada, party hosts and bartenders are being told to hire designated drivers this year. In Belgium, a public safety campaign encouraging residents to choose a ”Bob,” or nondrinking driver, is making an impact, he said.

In the United States, the National Highway Safety Administration and Mothers Against Drunk Driving have launched publicity campaigns, while police in many states plan to dispatch extra patrols and establish sobriety checkpoints.

But Winsten said it would be tragic for drunk driving fatalities – which have plummeted from 24,000 annually nationwide in 1988 to 16,000 a decade later – to creep back up.

He said the notion that many people will stay home this year because of Y2K fears doesn’t lessen the risks.

”I think the risks are even greater. Those who are out celebrating will celebrate even more this year,” said Winsten, who started the nation’s ”designated driver” campaign in 1988. ”It’s the kind of problem if you turn your attention away from it, it will come back.”

In Massachusetts, no sobriety checkpoints were planned for New Year’s Eve, but an extra 40 state troopers were scheduled to patrol roadways in search of impaired drivers, said State Police spokesman Lieutenant Paul Maloney.

They’ll mostly concentrate on spots in urban areas where there have been alcohol-related crashes in the past, Maloney said.

Four people died in drunken-driving wrecks in Massachusetts over the last New Year’s holiday, up from two deaths in 1998, he said.

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