'Tis The Season ... To Crack Down on Drunk Driving

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(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) The Department of Transportation kicked off the annual Holiday Drunk Driving Crackdown Monday. Specifically, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wants law enforcement to get tougher on drunk drivers who refuse to take roadside breathalyzer tests with the use of on-call judges and blood tests.

Law enforcement officials say too many drivers know that refusing to take a roadside breathalyzer improves their odds of beating a conviction. Secretary LaHood thinks a strategy being used in nine states dubbed "no refusal" might be a solution.

Under a "no refusal" plan, a judge stays on-call, even in off hours, to issue search warrants by phone if necessary that allow police to take blood samples from drivers who refuse a breathalyzer. Much like searching a car for drugs, this is asking a judge for permission to search for evidence of drunk driving, except the evidence is blood alcohol level, and the search is a blood test.

About one in four drunk drivers refuse a breathalyzer nationwide, while in some states the rate is much higher—in New Hampshire 81 percent of drivers refused. See chart on refusal rates by state here.

LaHood writes on his blog, "states like Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, and Utah that have adopted "No Refusal" programs demonstrate more guilty pleas and fewer costly trials." And, as you might expect, so called "refusal rates" have also dropped. In Texas, they fell from nearly 50 percent down to 10 percent.

Not every state is able to join up with this federal push backed with $7 million in funding for a national advertising campaign. In 20 states, current law would not allow warrants to be issued for blood tests by "on-call" judges. But that leaves 21 states that LaHood hopes will adopt the plan. Some states that do use "no refusal" plans do so only on certain highly publicized "no refusal" weekends.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration there were 10,839 fatalities from crashes involving a drunk driver in 2009. That's 32 percent of traffic fatalities for the year but a drop of  872 from 2008.  The rate tends to spike each December.

“I applaud the efforts of the law enforcement officials who have pioneered the ‘no refusal’ approach to get drunk drivers off our roads," the Secretary said in a statement. "And I urge other states to adopt this approach to make sure that drunk drivers can’t skirt the law and are held accountable.”