August 16, 2012 10:02:40 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi no longer ranks among the top 10 states for deaths caused by drunk drivers, officials say.
Gov. Phil Bryant and law-enforcement officials announced Wednesday that Mississippi's rate of alcohol-related deaths per million miles driven fell sharply in 2010, the last year with complete statistics.
Mississippi's rate of drunken-driving deaths has fallen to 20th among states, although it's still above the national rate.
Officials said Mississippi had been ranked among the worst 10 states since records started being kept. In 2009, the state ranked seventh-worst.
"This is a celebration of dropping out of the top 10," said Bryant, himself a former deputy sheriff.
Alcohol-related traffic deaths in Mississippi fell from 364 in 2009 to 231 in 2010. That's a 37 percent drop.
The reasons for the big drop weren't immediately clear. The number of alcohol-related fatalities fell about 3 percent nationwide, to 32,885, according to data released by the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency. The agency says alcohol-related deaths are falling in line with all traffic deaths nationwide, but remain about 30 percent of deaths.
In 2010 and some other recent years, drunken-driving deaths have accounted for 35 percent to 40 percent of all traffic deaths in Mississippi, but that share was elevated, at 52 percent, in 2009. Alcohol-related fatalities rose from 2008 to 2009.
Among those who spoke Wednesday was Gulfport Police Chief Alan Weatherford, whose daughter was hit in April 2011 by a drunk driver. DeAnna Tucker, the daughter, died hours later at a hospital.
Weatherford said he was motivated by questions from Tucker's son, Landon, asking why police hadn't stopped the driver before he plowed into Tucker outside a bridal shop where she was planning her wedding.
"Landon's comments have really engaged me to think about what I can do to help fix the problem," Weatherford said during a news conference at the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Jackson. "Ask all your friends and family to designate a driver or call a cab. That's what's going to help fix this in Mississippi."
Mississippi Highway Patrol Director Col. Donnell Berry said that from Aug. 21 through Sept. 3, state troopers will be participating in an annual federal program to cut drunken driving. The effort includes a $136,000 federal grant that the Highway Patrol will use to pay 369 additional troopers to patrol during the period. Local agencies will receive separate grants, and the enforcement push will be supported by advertising beginning Wednesday.
"By doing this, we hope to get the impaired drivers off the road," Berry said.
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