There are more people driving, more people drinking, and more people driving drunk than ever before. The questions still remain whether DUI laws in various states are too severe, and, at the same time, whether those arrested for DUI who can afford aggressive, high-priced lawyers can get away with it, while poorer drivers lose their licenses, and maybe their jobs, in addition to having their car insurance rates sky-rocket.
“Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes kill someone every 30 minutes and non-fatally injure someone every two minutes” (MADD 2003 1). MADD statistics also reveal that “during 2001, 17,448 people in the U.S. died in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, representing 41% of all traffic-related deaths” (MADD 2003 1).
While newspaper headlines usually write about famous personalities arrested for drunk driving (Diana Ross, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, among others) it is the ordinary citizens who suffer the most. At the same time, intoxicated drivers’ arrests are increasing: “Approximately 1.5 million drivers were arrested in 2000 for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. That’s just over 1% of the estimated 120 million or more episodes of impaired driving that occur among U.S. adults each year” (MADD 2003 1).
Of course, statistics may well be misleading. The question is whether these “drunk” drivers committed some sort of accident that may be totally unrelated to their drinking. There are many who feel some of the DUI arrests and convictions are far too harsh, when compared to accidents caused by elderly drivers. A perfect example is the killing of over a dozen people recently at the 3rd Street Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica by an 80-year old driver who, to date, has merely had his license revoked.
There are lawyers; organizations who complain that the so-called “drunk driver accident rate” has been hyped out of proportion: “Government statistics indicate that each year more people die as a result of accidental drowning than die in low blood alcohol (BAC) related motor vehicle accidents (Legalscholar.com 2003 1). This legal website also points out that “your chances of being killed as a direct result of medical malpractice is 28 times higher than your chances of being killed in a motor vehicle accident involving a BAC driver” (Legalscholar.com 2003 1).
Nevertheless, the state of California, which probably has more motor vehicles on the roads than anywhere else in the worlds, has some of the strictest DUI laws. For example, “if you are arrested for driving under the influence and your blood alcohol level is .08 percent or more, your driver’s license will be taken away by the arresting officer at the time of your arrest” (www.duicenter.com 2003 3). California laws also state that drinking an alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle on a public roadway is against the law. And so is having an opened container holding any amount of alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle.
One problem with arrest and conviction lies in the bureaucracy of the various states. In Utah, for example, the complicated DUI problem “is in the area of data collection…(but now there is in place a law) toward collecting important DUI-related facts and making the information accessible” (Kinkead 29092 1).
Existing law and data banks aside, drunk driving is a moral issue as well. Much of the public feels that drinking should not be considered a sin, or against the law, except in the case of under-age drinking. However,. Where the moral dilemma comes in is whether someone who has been drinking should be allowed to drive, even if his driving may not result in an accident. There are those who argue that some of the problems or incidents may have nothing to do with alcohol, but driving errors that anyone might make, such as rolling though a stop sign, or even making an illegal left turn. In fact, there are even legal experts who are adamant in their belief that an accident that caused a fatality or injury may not be related to alcohol. Of course, these are DEFENSE lawyers venting their opinions.
However, let’s get back to the under0-age drinking problem, which has spilled over into accidents- many fatal to another driver, pedestrian, or driver and passengers themselves. According to MADD (2003) “young men, age 18 to 20, too young to buy alcohol legally, report driving while impaired almost as frequently as men 21 to 34”. The National Academy of Sciences recently reported that “Underage driving is our nation’s No. 1 youth drug problem, killing 6.5 times moiré youth than all illicit drugs combined, yet the issue has been virtually absent from the federal agenda, including omission from the current billion-dollar anti-drug campaign” (www.NAS.com 2003 1). Just in the last few weeks, teen-agers both as passengers and drivers, were killed in alcohol-related accidents in and around Los Angeles. We have seen newspaper and TV coverage of young children, some even toddlers, killed by drunk drivers. Again, NAS statistics bear this out: “In 2000, 23% of the 2,197 traffic fatalities among children ages 0 to 14 years involved alcohol” (NAS 2003 2). It is not only children in other cars or as pedestrians who die. MADD (2003) reports that nearly two-thirds of children under 15 who died in alcohol-related crashes between 1985 and 1996 were riding with the drinking driver.
Even with such statistics, questions arise about harsh punishment. It is one thing to jail and/or fine someone who has been cited more than once for DUI. It is something else for a first-time offender. Someone who causes an accident,m regardless of whether alcohol was the cause or not, is immediately cited, his or her license suspended, and the possibility oif heavy fine, even jail, and a booming insurance bill are likely to follow. Is this fair? One can ask a teen-age driver and get one answer. One can ask the parent of a child killed or severely injured by an alcohol-impaired driver and get a totally different reaction. One has to go back to the famous mantra of the TV series Baretta: “You do the crime, you do the time”.
MADD (2003) reports that impaired driving will affect one in three Americans during their lifetimes. It seems unfair to weight alcohol-related traffic deaths and injuries with injuries of second-hand smoke or eating high-fat fast foods. It is one thing to offer a child, for example, a Big Mac, and something else far worse to permit the child to be a passenger in a car driven by a drunk driver.
At a time when society seems to have relaxed its moral objections to so many things- from Internet porn to same-sex marriage, there should be no relaxation of the vigilant police officer when it comes to stopping, citing, and even arresting an impaired driver. Unlike food, for example, driving is often not a necessity, but a privilege. As more cars clog our streets and highways, getting drunk drivers off these streets should be a major priority: zero tolerance is recommended.
Kinkead, L. C. (2003): “Courts to Blame for DUIs?” Salt Lake City UT: Deseret News
Mothers Against Drunk Driving Online (2003): Occurrence and Consequences” www.MADD.org
“California DUI Laws” online (2003): www.duicenter.com
Legal Scholar website (2003): “Defense of Drunk Driving Punishment as too harsh” www.legalscholar.com
National Academy of Science website: “Report of National Academy of Sciences on Underage Drinking and Driving” Sept. 10, 2003 www.NAS.org