LAS VEGAS -- Law enforcers and advocates are crediting tough new drunken driving laws, education and enforcement for dramatic reductions in the number of Nevadans who die in alcohol- related crashes.
In 20 years, the state has climbed from near the bottom of states in a ranking of traffic deaths blamed on alcohol and drugs.
"They're giving us the tools to prevent the deaths," said police Detective Bill Redfairn, a fatal crash investigator in Las Vegas. "People, I think, are getting the message that drinking and driving is not such a good idea."
A study released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that from 1982 to 2001, Nevada rose from second-worst in the nation to 17th-worst in a ranking of fatal crashes involving drivers under the influence.
Nevada showed the nation's second-biggest improvement, by percentage, behind Vermont.
"We think that speaks volumes about law enforcement, prosecutions, educational programs, legislation and public awareness," said Sandy Heverly, executive director of the Las Vegas organization Stop DUI. "We've got some of the toughest drunken driving laws in the nation."
"Nevada had laws, like most other places in the nation, that did not recognize the seriousness of the offense," said former Democratic Assemblyman Bob Sader, a lawyer in Reno. "In the 1980s the Legislature revamped the laws to say it wasn't OK to be drunk behind the wheel anymore."
Nevada established mandatory jail sentences and fines for first offenses and increased the severity of a third offense to a felony. It also allowed police to use whatever force is necessary to draw blood from suspected drunken drivers for analysis.
Sader and Heverly noted that while Nevada still allows drivers to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent, the Legislature will be asked when it convenes in February to consider lowering that limit to 0.08 percent.
Bars and taverns in Nevada can remain open 24 hours a day, and cocktail servers provide free drinks to casino gamblers.
Heverly spoke while waiting Tuesday with about 30 people at Clark County District Court for a Las Vegas father to be sentenced to five to 20 years in prison following his admission that he was driving drunk in a St. Patrick's Day crash that killed his 2-year-old son.
"Twenty years ago, drunk driving was socially acceptable," Heverly said. "It's not an accident. It's murder at random."
Redfairn said police in the state's most populous county have used federal grants for saturation patrols and checkpoints to identify and pull over drunken drivers.
He said public service announcements also have helped, along with media attention to high-profile cases, designated driver programs and businesses sponsoring free rides home for bar and casino patrons.
The national traffic safety report found that in 1982, when the state had about 800,000 residents, 191 people died in alcohol-related crashes -- 68 percent of the 280 fatal crashes reported statewide.
In 1990, when Nevada had 1.2 million residents, 203 people died in alcohol-related crashes -- 59 percent of the 343 fatal crashes in the state.
By 2001, with the state's population nearing 2 million and the number of fatal crashes statewide at 313, just 133 people died in alcohol-related crashes -- or 42 percent.
The report found that the majority of Nevada's alcohol-related fatal crashes occur in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.