What Do You Do With A Drunken Driver?

Horrific consequencesThis is an issue about which I’ve devoted a great deal of thought over the past two decades.  Even though I’m no longer a member of law enforcement, the issue still concerns me.  When I was a police officer, I devoted a lot of time detecting, investigating, arresting, and prosecuting drunk drivers.  After helping rescue squad workers peel a couple of dead bodies out of beer can polluted wrecks, DUI enforcement became something I really liked to do, in spite of all the paperwork and legal hassle that accompanies it these days.

Though DUI-related fatalities have been declining on average since 1982 (when the NHTSA started keeping DUI statistics), in 2010 10,759 people nationwide lost their lives in automobile crashes where alcohol was determined to be a contributing factor.  There is probably a “dark figure” associated with DUI fatalities also, since some police agencies may not investigate fatalities as rigorously as others do.  Compare that with figures from iCasualties.org, who document casualty figures for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The total number reported by iCasualties for both wars over the 11 years that we’ve been engaged is 7913.  I have no intention of trying to belittle the extraordinary sacrifices made by our and our allies’ military personnel, but the comparison is stark.  In one year in the United States, 2846 more people lost their lives in drunken traffic crashes than we’ve lost in 11 years of two wars!

Public awareness and increased enforcement efforts have driven the numbers down, of course.  And that’s a good thing.  But there’s still something wrong with the way we’re going about it.  That probably left a markAs I mentioned, during my time in law enforcement, processing a DUI arrest was a total drag.  I streamlined my activities as much as possible, and it still took 2-3 hours between stop time and clearing up for more traffic (errr…coptalk for getting done with the arrest and returning to work).  A lot of guys I knew — good cops — didn’t care at all for DUI enforcement for that very reason.  If you’re from a small department, as I was, a single DUI arrest could tie up a significant percentage of your available officers for a significant percentage of the shift.

So how to fix it?  I made a number of suggestions over the years.  All of them fell on deaf ears, mostly because it involved employing additional personnel.  But I think there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way the law addresses DUI.  The reason that a DUI arrest is so problematic versus arrests for other offenses is that the penalties have grown so stiff over the years.  There’s a belief in place that “throwing the book” at them will both discourage recidivism and, pour encourager les autres, discourage others from committing the same offense.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores a very simple dynamic that is associated with inebriation.  The first thing to go after a drink or two is one’s ability to reason.  Degradation of perception and motor skills follow (within three to eight or more drinks), but by that time, a person’s ability to assess his or her abilities is diminished, if not gone entirely.  So, when the decision has to be made about how to get home, the prospective offender is unlikely to be able to realistically consider the consequences associated with getting caught.  Thus, “throwing the book” at them fails at the one point in time that it is intended to discourage them; at the crux of the decision (often augmented by holding one’s hand out to ensure that it is steady — though what that proves, I don’t know), “Am I ok to drive?”.

Compounding this issue is the lag time between arrest and trial.  If someone is intent on disputing the matter in court (and who wouldn’t be, given the fines, costs, and loss of driving privileges that conceding the issue will accrue to them?), it can be months before it actually gets heard.  I had a couple of cases go 14-16 months before they were resolved!  So there’s no immediacy associated with the harsh penalties our government has enacted in response to DUI.  This again undermines the intent behind DUI enforcement and promoting traffic safety.  In one week’s time, two different guys on my shift arrested the same guy for DUI 11th and 12th offense!  He didn’t care.

So, how to make the law and enforcement efforts more effective?  Personally, I think that corporal punishment does have a legitimate place in the criminal justice system, but I know there’re many people who’ll cite the 8th Amendment and call me bad names for advocating such a “barbaric” practice.  So how about this?  For a first offense, instead of overwhelming financial repercussions, how about a modest fine and 1000 hours of community service, preferably volunteering at rescue squads, emergency rooms, morgues, jails, or other places where they can experience first-hand the tragic consequences associated with alcohol and substance abuse?  I think that would be more likely to have a lasting effect on a person.

You can’t condemn the efforts of cops, citizens, and law makers at curtailing the damage caused by drunk drivers. I just wonder if there isn’t a better way.  One in which the lesson can be learned, potential offenders will be discouraged, manpower will be maximized, and the community will be served.  Any ideas?

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