Aug. 12, 2009— -- On a recent Friday night in Lowell, Mass., just outside Boston, state police were on the lookout for drunken drivers.
Officers regularly stop drivers to ask if they've been drinking. Some drivers are asked to take sobriety tests; some of those are arrested for Driving Under the Influence of alcohol.
Law enforcement officers here and across the U.S. say they are noticing a disturbing new trend: More of those being arrested for DUI are women.
A wave of new studies shows a surge in the number of women abusing alcohol. Thirty-nine percent of young women now engage in binge drinking, an increase of 30 percent since 1979, according to government statistics.
And despite groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, more women who drink are getting behind the wheel.
While statistics show that men still drink more than women and are responsible for more drunken driving cases, the gap is narrowing, researchers say. The number of women arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs was 28.8 percent higher in 2007 than it was in 1998, while the number of men arrested was 7.5 percent lower, according to FBI figures that cover about 56 percent of the country.
Dr. Petros Levounis, an addiction expert, says the statistical spike may be a surprising side effect of more equality in the workplace.
"As women have jobs, start having jobs that resemble the jobs men have, and as more women start having the same entertainment patterns as men do, along with that comes more drunk driving."
Levounis says another possible contributor to the spike is stress, as more woman strive to balance work and family. "The whole idea of expecting the mother to do all really has to change because it is simply not possible," he says.
Sometimes when those women take the wheel drunk, they have their kids in tow.
Diane Schuler caused a head-on collision on a New York highway in early August, killing herself, her daughter, three nieces and three men in an SUV she hit, according to police.
Toxicology tests later showed that the 36-year-old mother and cable company executive had been drinking heavily before taking the wheel of the car. The tests also showed traces of marijuana in her system.
The problem has caught the attention of the federal government. The Transportation Department's annual crackdown on drunken driving, which begins later this month, will focus on women.
"There's the impression out there that drunken driving is strictly a male issue, and it is certainly not the case," Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The Associated Press. "There are a number of parts of the country where, in fact, the majority of impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes are female."