Drunk driving is wrong, it's irresponsible, and does cause a senseless waste of lives. However, what should be done about the problem is debatable and certainly open to discussion. That anyone should be killed by a drunk driver is tragic, but the solutions to this problem are often based on emotion, personal vendettas, and not rational thought, sound public policy, nor backed up by statistical data.
Alcohol-related fatalities, a number grossly exaggerated, refers to whether any of the participants in an accident is suspected of consuming alcohol beverages, even the slightest amount, regardless of whether the person was the cause of the accident or not. When police accident reports are studied for contributing human factors in fatality cases, 11 percent are blamed on physical impairment. However, physical impairment includes not only being under the influence of alcohol, but also includes being ill, falling asleep, fainting, heart attacks, strokes, epileptic seizures, insulin shock, and other abnormal physical problems. Irresponsibility on our highways comes in many forms and impaired driving is only part of the overall problem.
What do we do about the drunk driver in our society? The knee-jerk response by lawmakers has been strict laws and severe punishments. But severe punishments have not proven successful. Tough sanctions work the best on responsible drivers, those who self-correct, are easily deterred, and restrict their behaviors with good common sense . . . people who are the least problem to society. Severe sanctions are the least effective on irresponsible, hardcore drinkers who are society s greatest problem.
Movements to reduce the legal intoxication level from 0.10 to 0.08 percent BAC or less will do nothing to get at the problem. The hardcore group will not be thwarted by this legislation. The hardcore group wakes up in the morning close to a .010 BAC and builds on it from there. Most drunk driver fatalities have BAC levels close to 0.20. If lawmakers reduce the level to 0.08, they are simply catching more of the wrong people, the people who are not the problem. DWI laws are like bicycle locks - they keep responsible people honest but they are useless against determined bicycle thieves.
In their zeal to get "them", groups like MADD have gotten "us" instead by reducing our constitutional rights significantly in the area of privacy, self-incrimination, search and seizure, and the freedom to be left alone. We've paid the price, but it is questionable whether we have bought any safety at all. The hardcore irresponsible drunk driver in our society is not going to be easily controlled, particularly by the well-meaning but ineffective efforts of those who think our criminal justice community can solve the problem. Police should focus on the characteristics of this hardcore group instead of the population in general. People who conduct themselves in this manner can be spotted.
Legislatures should stop being swept up in the misleading media hype and enact legislation which treats the vast majority of people administratively outside of the court system with license suspension, education, counseling, and treatment. Responsible people self-correct. Losers don't.
Source: The Moderation Reader. Written by the Honorable Dennis A. Challeen, a district judge in southeastern Minnesota. This Article was published in the January/February 1995 NMA NEWS.
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