Cover Story: Cost of drunk driving

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Doctors and emergency room workers are bracing for what could be one of the busiest weekends of the year.

New Year's Eve is typically loaded with alcohol-related deaths and injuries.  And the upcoming celebration could be worse than most years because it falls on a Saturday.

Last year, with December 31st on a Friday, some emergency rooms across the country saw a roughly 50-percent increase in New Year's patients.

The TV ads grab your attention.  Out with friends, had too much to drink and you don't see the eyes that are watching you.

The message of the invisible cop.

"They'll see you before you see them. Cops are cracking down on drinking and driving. Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over," the ad says.

It's a $7 million holiday ad campaign undertaken by NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland says, "We want to encourage people to make the smart decision before they get behind the wheel."

The message may be getting through.

New data released by the federal agency show a five percent drop in drunk driving deaths in the U.S., down to 10,228 in 2010.

Ten-thousand deaths though is still an awful lot.  That's ten times the number of people killed in airplane crashes around the world last year.

There's another cost people don't think about when the party is just getting started.

"I always tell people I say, "Look, a DWI will cost you $10,000," says George Laughrun, a Charlotte attorney who handles more drunk driving cases than many in town.

He says most people don't do the math.

A DWI conviction (even for a first offense) can easily run between $8,000-10,000.

Here's how that breaks down.  Car insurance rates will triple.  That'll average about $3,000.  Court fees could run as high as $2,000.  Hiring an attorney will cost you about $3,500.

Then there's bail bondsmen fees.  Alcohol assessment programs.  License reinstatement fees.

And it gets worse.  You could lose your car.

Get a DWI conviction and your insurance company could cancel your collision coverage.  Without collision coverage, a lender could force you to pay off the car loan immediately or turn over the car.

"Where you get hit is on your insurance consequences," says Laughrun.

So what should you do if you'll be drinking on New Year's?

The advice we've all heard before:  Pick a designated driver.  Take public transportation.  Call a cab.  Or an alternative service like Zingo Charlotte.

"Thank you so much."

They dispatch a driver on a foldable scooter.  They'll fold it up.  Put it in the back of your car.  And drive you and your car home.

"Have a plan before you go out."

There are several reasons for why drunk driving deaths are on the decline.

Experts say it's a combination of things:  An overall decrease in traffic fatalities, better vehicle safety, improvements to our highways and people are making better choices.

How to avoid getting drunk?

Here's what the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says:  It recommends people should not have more than one alcoholic drink per hour and every other drink should be a non-alcoholic one.

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