Photo from Missouri State Highway Patrol
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Alcohol, in the form of distilled spirits, has been around almost as long as organized human culture. It has been used as a celebrant, a relaxant, the lubricant of human interaction. IT has also been used, and abused, as a way to push aside sorrows, anxiety, and depression. Used in moderation, alcoholic beverages are accepted and even encouraged. But their abuse has taken many down the dark tunnel of alcoholism, a path marked by anger, violence, and even death.
One of the places where the dangers of booze have been made manifest is on our streets and highways.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that in 2009, an estimated 30.2 million people reported driving under the influence of alcohol at least once in that year. Some 900,000 are arrested annually for DUI/DWI, a third of those are repeat offenders. On average, around 12,000 people in this country die in alcohol-related accidents each year.
There is good news in the trends. Since all states adopted a universal drinking age of 21 in 1981, alcohol-related traffic fatalities have fallen almost 50 percent. In the 1970’s, half of all traffic deaths were attributable to alcohol. Today, that figure is about one-third.
But that kind of celebration carries a heavy dose of rationalization. If that figure represented only the intoxicated themselves, there might be found a bit of justice. However, most of the people who are injured, and who die in alcohol-related accidents are innocents, those who just happened to be on the same road at the same time as the drunk.
In the United States, the legal limit is 0.08% blood alcohol content (BAC). In some states, drivers under the age of 21 can be charged if there is any detectable alcohol at all. In Germany, for example, where the legal drinking age is 16, standards are much stricter. The allowable BAC levels start at zero for beginning drivers, with less than 2 years' experience, and drivers under the age of 21. The same zero-tolerance standard applies to drivers performing the commercial transportation of passengers. For all drivers, the legal limit is 0.03% in conjunction with any other traffic offense or accident, and 0.05% without evidence of alcoholic impact. A BAC level of 0.11% results in the suspension of the person’s driver’s license for about one year. A BAC level of 0.16% means that the driver will require a successful Medical Psychological Assessment before the license can be reinstated. These stringent rules, and their unbending enforcement, keeps alcohol-related deaths to around 5% of the total each year.
I think there is something we can learn from this.
-- 51-year-old Sean Crane pleaded guilty Thursday October 10, 2013 in Nassau County, NY to DWI and other charges. It was his 12th such conviction since 1981. In May 2012, while driving drunk, struck and killed a 78-year-old woman crossing a street with her husband.
--Martin Heidgen, Taliyah Taylor and Franklin McPherson are attempting to have their vehicular homicide convictions thrown out on the grounds that they could not have acted with depraved indifference because they were so drunk they didn’t know what they were doing. Heidgen had gotten lost and was driving the wrong way on the Meadowbrook State Parkway in Long Island when their pickup truck hit a limousine, killing the driver and a 7-year-old passenger. Heidgen had a BAC of 0.28% and is serving a sentence of 19 to life.
--51-year-old Connie O’Hara was drunk while driving west on Pulaski Road in Greenlawn, NY when she turned left across the path of an approaching motorcycle. The bike slammed into O’Hara’s car, leaving the rider, 52-year-old Karen Labarbera, in critical condition.
--18-year-old Jean Soriano was drunk while driving an SUV when he rear-ended a minivan in southeastern Nevada, killing all five members of a Southern California family.
These are only three stories of several hundred available to anyone with a computer and a search engine. A person would have to have been marooned on Ganymede (one of Jupiter’s moons) to not know the risk one hangs around the necks of everyone else when they climb behind the wheel with a snoot full of spirits. And yet, it happens every day. In a report published in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control stated that “An average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before the first arrest.” Not even the current legal consequences provide deterrence. A journal article published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 50% to 75% of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license.
Compared to other countries, the U.S. has less stringent laws governing impaired driving.
Maybe it’s time to raise the bar.
Driving is not a right. It is a privilege granted by taking tests and being awarded a license. In that respect, it’s no different than being a doctor or an attorney. The continued possession of that license is contingent on the responsible operation of a vehicle at all times. With all the information out there, there’s no excuse for anyone to be behind the wheel after consuming alcohol. But the statistics continue to be generated; people still drink and drive. And people still die.
If we, as a society, wish to keep the streets safe by keeping drunks off of them, then the penalties for drunk driving must be made significant enough to penetrate that alcoholic fog and motivate someone to pocket their keys and call a cab. Therefore, I suggest the following enhancements.
For the first conviction, a very hefty fine (at least $2,000) and a mandatory 15-day license suspension.
For the second conviction, a serious fine (at least $8,000) and a mandatory 90-day license suspension.
Upon the third conviction, a fine of at least $15,000, a six-month jail sentence, and a mandatory 2-year license suspension.
Upon the fourth conviction, a fine of $50,000, 3 years in jail, and a permanent nation-wide suspension of driving privileges.
In any case where drunk driving results in an accident, the driver’s license is suspended for a minimum of five years, along with a $20,000 fine and 6 months in jail. If the accident results in permanent injury or death, the punishment should be akin to manslaughter; a lengthy prison term, a huge fine, and (of course) a permanent loss of driving privileges.
For the habitual drinker and driver, drastic measures are necessary to keep them off the road. The penalties should be severe enough to get their attention before they even begin to drink.
Responsible adults should be allowed to drink responsibly. I have no problem with that. What is needed is a way to make sure that responsible adults responsibly decide when they are too drunk to drive.
It’s the only way to protect the innocents.