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N.H. DWI deaths show significant drop in 2 decades

CONCORD, N.H. -- In 1980, there were 111 highway deaths in New Hampshire blamed on drunken driving. In 2002, there were 51.

Officials credit a combination of public awareness and tough new laws for the dramatic decline.

Most of the other states have seen similar declines, a recent study by the federal Department of Transportation shows, though the number of drunken driving deaths has begun creeping upward again in the past three years.

"A lot of people thought this problem was solved a long time ago," said Kathryn Henry, spokeswoman for the national Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "We saw tremendous progress in the '80s and '90s. And now it's flattened out."

New Hampshire law calls for a mandatory 90-day license revocation for a first drunken driving offense, and a Class B felony conviction for a third. In 1994, the state lowered the level of blood alcohol required to be considered drunk from 0.10 to 0.08 percent.

A law that took effect Thursday requires all first-time drunken drivers to complete an impaired driver intervention program, and state lawmakers have proposed laws to further criminalize drunken driving. A bill sponsored by state Representatives Richard Morris and David Welch would increase incarceration time for second-time offenders and make a first-time offense a misdemeanor instead of a violation.

Nationally, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in the early 1980s to target the problem, and programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) started devoting more attention to drunken driving. Public awareness campaigns throughout the 1980s and 1990s encouraged partygoers to call cabs, stay overnight, or use designated drivers. The country's rate of alcohol-related driving deaths decreased steadily for almost two decades.

For many drivers, the threat of a fatal drunken driving accident is still more than enough to guide them into safe choices, said Don Lesperance, owner of the Lakes Region Driver's Education school.

As with all driving schools certified by the state, he is required to teach a minimum of eight hours about impaired driving. He doesn't show the gruesome movies about carnage on the highways, opting instead for films about families that experienced a death, or movies that illuminate the circumstances that can lead to tragic accidents.

"If we're making a difference that's also a sign of the times, that kids are much smarter than that," he said. "Not just about the ramifications of losing their license, in terms of losing their friends."

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