A Colorado newspaper recently published an important editorial discussing the current effort by lawmakers in the state to further stiffen drunk driving penalties. The editorial acknowledged the tragedy and senselessness of drunk driving fatalities, but pointed out that continually increasing penalties for drunk drivers has done little to lessen the problem.
Although the editorial is from Colorado, it certainly is a subject that rings true here in Minnesota. Like other states, the DWI laws in Minnesota are becoming more and more severe with regard to consequences, both criminal and civil in nature. The last big overhaul was in 2011 with increased civil sanctions for those drivers whose blood alcohol concentrations were.16 or more. This included lengthier driver’s license revocation periods and license plate impoundment.
The author of the piece points out that every year 25,000 drivers in Colorado are arrested and charged with drunk driving. Another 150 people die each year in drunk driving accidents in the state. While these numbers are certainly troubling, the author notes that no attempts to increase penalties faced by drunk drivers have helped reduce the numbers of people who die.
The reality is that arresting drunk drivers, confiscating their licenses and forcing them to pay costly fines has not been shown to be effective at keeping other motorists safe. Ask any police officer and they will explain how little of an impact taking someone’s license has on keeping them off the roads. Continuing to increase the pain suffered by offenders does nothing to lower recidivism rates or prevent first-timers from hopping behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Despite the ineffectiveness of increased penalties, legislators in Colorado are currently considering a measure that would make all repeat DUIs felonies, further increasing the time that drunk drivers must spend behind bars. As the editorial points out, those who are engaging in repeated drunk driving episodes are likely addicts and, when drinking, are undeterred by the threat of some future punishment. By making repeat DUIs felonies, legislators would only succeed in making it even harder for alcoholics to find and keep stable jobs, increasingly the likelihood that they will fall off the wagon and get back behind the wheel impaired.
Rather than spend time and money rounding the same offenders up and cycling them through the criminal justice system, the editorial suggests that energy be devoted to expanding alcohol treatment and education programs. Intervening early and trying to keep those with problems from drinking might actually save lives. Though these treatment programs are costly, the long-term impact is far greater than ever-tougher criminal penalties for those with serious alcohol abuse problems.
Another solution floated by the editorial is to increase the amount of money devoted to ignition interlock programs. By keeping alcoholics from being able to operate their vehicles, other drivers might actually be spared the harm of encountering a repeat offender. Though the interlock devices are not perfect, they are far more effective than punishing a driver harshly after an accident has occurred.
Though handing out stiff penalties sounds goods in a newspaper headline, the reality is that it does little to solve the underlying problem. Spending time and energy keeping repeat offenders sober and out of their cars are the best ways to keep others safe. The hope is that more lawmakers come to realize this soon, something that will benefit everyone.
Source: “Making Felons Out Of Drunk Drivers Only Serves Up Punishment To Those Who Aren’t Deterred By Any Consequence From Driving Drunk,” by Dave Perry, published at AuroraSentinel.com.