WASHINGTON – Some call it accidental.
Some call it negligence.
And some call it America's most frequently committed violent crime.
As drums rolled Thursday in front of the Capitol,hundreds of victims,survivors and activists gathered to address the issue of drunk driving at the 25th anniversary rally of the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
MADD released findings of a survey conducted by the Gallup Poll,in which 37 percent of respondents identified drunk driving as the United States' greatest highway safety problem.
The survey revealed that nearly all respondents understand the possible consequences of drunk driving – that they could kill or injure others – and would refrain from it.
The MADD/National Insurance Survey interviewed 1,004 people 16 or older,926 of whom were licensed drivers. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Though alcohol-related deaths have decreased 44 percent since 1980,MADD's inaugural year,nearly 17,000 Americans died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 2004.
“MADD has proved,when everyday people raise their voice in Washington and other places,they can be heard,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg,D-N.J.,who has pushed for tougher penalties against drunk drivers.
Lautenberg wrote the bill that required states to lower their blood-alcohol levels to 0.08. from 0.1 as the level at which drivers are considered to be too drunk to drive.
The survey found 88 percent of respondents supported the 0.08 BAC law.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard,D-Calif.,said the alcohol hasn't done enough to stop “the under-age drinking crisis.” She noted that,in 2002,the industry spent $990 million on ads promoting alcohol use but just $10 million on ads promoting responsible drinking.
She said that translated to young people viewing one responsible drinking ad for every 609 ads promoting consumption.
MADD National President Glynn Birch,who lost his 21-month-old son to a drunk driver,praised the organization's record.
“Twenty-five years ago,drunk driving was a last socially acceptable form of murder in America,” he said. “MADD set out to change that.”
Birch announced MADD's goal of cutting drunk driving deaths by an additional 24 percent by the end of the 2008 by working more closely with law enforcement officials,achieving maximums seat belt use,supporting better technology to prevent drunk driving – such as ignition devices that won't let people who are drunk start their cars – and transportation alternatives.
Since 1980,MADD claims to have helped save 300,000 lives through its programs.
According to Timothy Hoyt,vice president of safety for Nationwide Insurance,reducing the number of drunk driving incidents is not enough.
“One day,I hope to totally eliminate this preventable crime,” he said.
Some at the rally wore badges with pictures of relatives and loved ones who were killed by drunk drivers.
MADD member Sherry Sands,53,of Apple Valley,Calif.,said she wishes she wasn't a member.
“Drunk driving is not accidental,” she said. “It's murder.”
Five years ago,Sands lost her 26-year-old daughter and 6-year-old granddaughter when a repeat offender,going 96 mph went through a stop sign in a residential neighborhood and collided head-on with their car.
“The laws are already there. They're just not enforced,” she said.
Sands,who is now president of a MADD organization in Sand Bernadino,Calif.,said one thing that prevents offenders from repeating is victim-impact panels.
As part of their court sentence,offenders are put in the same room with victims like Sands in hopes that the victim's personal pain will prevent offenders from driving drunk again.
“So far it's worked really well,” Sands said. “Just 12 percent that have come through my panel have repeated.” She said that the normal recidivism rate is 85 percent.
MADD's 25th Anniversary National Conference continues Friday and Saturday with a candlelight vigil and the unveiling of a holiday drunk-driving awareness campaign that includes a “Tie One on for Safety” ribbon. More than 600 supporters are expected.