Everyday there is news about alcohol-related traffic accidents and fatalities. Such tragedies underscore the necessity of strengthening existing laws; however, they also highlight the fact that even stronger laws might not create the desired results as many states continue to suffer from a high number of such accidents.
New Mexico efforts
In New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez, law enforcement and public safety officials, and drunk driving activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) continue to push lawmakers to further toughen laws against driving while intoxicated, especially for repeat offenders.
New Mexico presents an interesting case study in that whereas it once led the nation in drunk driving fatalities per capita, it has experienced a steady decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Martinez—like other leaders—assert that cracking down on repeat offenders is the logical and critical first step to keep America’s roads and drivers safe, especially from repeat offenders.
Other states have recently followed suit. Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Montana have all sought new legislation targeting their worst repeat DWI offenders.
Even more recently, a deadly alcohol-related crash in Wisconsin in July, 2017, has led to increased conversation about further strengthening Minnesota’s DWI laws. Three Minnesota men were struck and killed by a driver who was high from inhaling a can of air duster and was driving the wrong way down Interstate 94, thus calling for changes in state laws to include any intoxicating substance. Further, an amendment was added into the Senate version of the same bill to include the use of all motorized vehicles—snowmobiles, off-road vehicles, and all-terrain vehicles—in DWI legislation.
Do harsher laws really work?
However, several studies—including a 2015 one by Wallet Hub—have demonstrated that harsher punishments are less likely to deter drunk drivers. In fact, after examining each state’s minimum jail time, fines, mandatory ignition interlock device (IID), driver’s license suspension periods, and other relevant data, this particular study found that harsher penalties are far less likely to deter repeat drunk drivers than, for example, DWI checkpoints which have had better success. Some assert that the certainty of being caught and punished—even if said sanctions are not that harsh—is far more effective than harsher punishment policies. However, not everyone believes that DWI checkpoints are effective in curbing drunk driving either.
Nevertheless, the push for increasingly harsher laws continues. For example, returning to New Mexico, a recent bill sought to increase vehicular homicide from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony while adding additional years to sentences for those who have been convicted of four or more drunk-driving offenses. Granted, while these stricter laws will cost more money, many as what price do we attach to human life?
Others argue that existing laws are tough enough; however, prosecutors are failing to do their jobs. The propensity for plea agreements—particularly for lesser offenses—oftentimes overrides actually seeking justice.
Still others assert that more money should be directed toward addressing the addiction aspects of alcoholism because it makes little sense to send addicts to prison who end up being released as addicts and end up doing the same thing.
The bottom line
Despite a concentrated effort to curb DWIs—especially among repeat offenders—there continue to be high-profile drunk driving cases perpetrated by repeat offenders, and many of these offenders have multiple prior convictions. For example, we reported earlier about Minnesota’s efforts to crack down on serious repeat offenders following an Otter Tail man’s 28th arrest for DWI. The problem has become so pervasive that several states have contemplated—or actually legislated—assessing life sentences for the worst of the worst.
The fact remains, however, that even if penalties are made harsher and driver’s licenses are revoked, chronic drunk drivers who haven’t followed the law will be less likely to adhere to more stringent laws in the first place.