A sunny Sunday morning, a straight, flat road and a group of enthusiastic bicyclists. It seemed a perfect summer morning until, police say, a car crossed the centerline, crashed into the group and killed local residents Amy Gehring and Terry Walker.
And then the police account took an all-too-familiar turn: Alcohol or drugs likely contributed to the crash.
Besides heartache and furor, the July 16 Crosby Township tragedy caused a restless search for appropriate punishments – and possible prevention. But the interest and energy come too late. The time to prevent such disasters is before an impaired driver slips behind the wheel of the car.
On that point, at least, it is possible to find answers.
The statistics behind such tragedies shed light on the problem of drunk driving and may help shape prevention efforts. It’s a pressing public-health concern – in 2004, 16,694 Americans died in alcohol-related accidents, a fourth of all traffic deaths.
Centers for Disease Control says three-quarters of those convicted in DUI cases are frequent heavy drinkers or alcoholics. And one-third of drivers arrested for or convicted of driving under the influence are repeat offenders.
Those statistics contradict the rhetoric that most DUI offenders were simply innocents caught in a one-time circumstance. Most, in fact, play Russian roulette with alcohol and vehicles. And a large number don’t stop drinking the first time they’re caught.
STOP THE DRIVING
And most convicted drivers with suspended licenses don’t stop driving. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, half to three-fourths of drunk drivers with suspended licenses continue to drive – poorly. A third of second-time DUI offenders and half of third-time offenders with suspended licenses received violations or were involved in crashes.
In a sense, what that all adds up to is what doesn’t work – why many drunk drivers don’t stop drinking or driving.
But there is growing consensus on prevention that works.
MADD, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the National Commission Against Drunk Driving all agree mandatory treatment programs are at least partially effective.
They promote recovery – the only real long-term solution to a problem that exhibits itself as a crime but is at heart an illness – and they reduce recidivism. MADD reports that DUI offenders who enter treatment show a 7 percent to 9 percent drop in recidivism.
TAKE THE CARS
Limiting offenders’ access to vehicles – not just their possession of driving licenses – also helps. In California, first-time offenders whose vehicles were impounded had a fourth fewer crashes and repeat offenders had 38 percent fewer. Studies in Maryland and California show that alcohol-triggered ignition locks reduced repeat DUI offenses by 65 percent to 90 percent.
And taking an all-around tougher stand reduces impaired driving as well – mandatory license revocation, lowering the blood alcohol calculation to .08, mandatory substance-abuse assessment and sobriety checkpoints on roadways.
RECOGNIZING WHAT WORKS
States are beginning to build consensus on some aspects of DUI law. Now all states have adopted 21 as the legal drinking age, and two-thirds allow police officers to take the license of drivers who refuse a breath test. Many states have lowered the limit for blood alcohol concentration from .10 to .08 and a dozen states penalize underage drivers for any measurable amount of alcohol in their systems.
In a nutshell, the effective approach is to require treatment, limit access to vehicles and – especially – act decisively on the first offense. “We cannot wait for a repeat offender to be caught a second time by the legal system,” the National Commission Against Drunk Driving states on its web site. We couldn’t agree more.
I agree with what the article has to say, although I do wonder if the money and resources spent on mandatory treatment couldn’t be put to better use (a 7 percent to 9 percent drop in recidivism isn’t too impressive). I’m all for treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation, but, treatment is only truly effective if the person actually wants to get better. On the other hand, 7 to 9 percent is better than nothing.
The good news is: Statistically, alcohol related traffic fatalities are on the decline, albeit a very slow and gradual decline.