Why Drunk-Driving Stats Don't Seem to Add Up

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At first, the figures seem contradictory. On one hand, according to statistics released over the weekend by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of drunk driving arrests fell 18 percent during the decade ending in 1997, from 1.8 million to 1.5 million; on the other, the number of people behind bars or on probation for drunken driving during the same period nearly doubled, from 270,100 to 513,200. Some experts believe the declining number of arrests indicate a level of success in getting social drinkers to sober up behind the wheel -- in part caused by the aging of the nationís motorist population. But the rise in the number of those under some sort of correctional supervision, say observers, also suggests that there is a group of problem drinkers who continue to be arrested.

"As with most problems," says TIME medical correspondent Christine Gorman, "the easy improvements come first, then you hit up against the more difficult issues." The bureauís statistics support the notion that those in jail or on probation constitute a "hard-core" population, a group that also has other drink-related problems. For example, more than half in both categories reported having been involved in a domestic dispute while under the influence of alcohol; about half of those in jail, and a third of those on probation, exhibited signs of alcohol dependency; and both groups experienced high rates of DWI recidivism. The statistics also revealed another significant phenomenon: "Compared to other offenders under correctional supervision," said the bureau, "DWI offenders were more commonly white and male, older and better educated."