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Memorial Day weekend one of the most dangers for drivers

Friday - 5/24/2013, 5:40am  ET

Hoai-Tran Bui, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Memorial Day weekend is one of the most dangerous holidays of the year for drivers.

Kurt Erickson, with the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, says there's a significant increase in drunken driving deaths during Memorial Day weekend.

In 2011 (the latest year that data is available), 406 people lost their lives nationwide during the three-day weekend, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"Forty percent of all traffic fatalities that happen in this country over Memorial Day were actually caused by drunk drivers," Erickson says. "That compares to 31 percent during the other parts of the year."

Erickson says Memorial Day is predicated on a lot of travel, forcing roadways to accommodate more drivers than they can hold. Additionally, more people attend parties and barbecues where alcohol is served and consumed.

Other time periods that see a spike in drunken driving deaths are July 4 and the winter holidays.

Erickson encourages taking precautions against crowded roadways and suggests making escape plans ahead of time. Travelers can also assign a designated driver and use alternative transportation -- such as Metro -- to get around.

For those throwing a party or barbecue, Erickson encourages being a responsible guest or host. If there's alcohol at a party, provide food, especially foods high in protein like meats and cheeses.

"Do what stadiums and ballparks do, close the bar an hour before the event ends," he says.

And besides designating drivers, designate a bartender, rather than letting guests mix their own drinks.

Although police will be looking for drunken drivers, they can't stop them all. So police are asking all motorists to be vigilant.

"The sad reality is that there are more drunk drivers than there are men and women in uniform looking for them," Erickson says.

Drivers and pedestrians who spot a drunken driver are encouraged to report the activity. In Maryland and D.C. call 911 and in Virginia dial #77.

But Erickson says one of the best defenses against a drunken driver is simple -- buckle up.

"The routine of wearing a seat belt is the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries," he says.

D.C., Virginia and Maryland have increased their penalties on drunken driving, according to Erickson. Both Virginia and Maryland have increased the use of ignition interlocks, which a person convicted of a DUI has to install in his/her vehicle.

Last year, D.C. increased maximum penalties for DUIs, including mandatory jail time for drivers with a high BAC, or if a person is found driving drunk with a child in the car.

"The penalties are great," Erickson says. "Whether you're in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, fines can be up to $2,500 for a first offense, it could be up to a year in jail or you can have your license taken away."

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