We don’t take drunken driving seriously enough.
That’s the only conclusion that makes sense to me after all these years of reading and writing about drunken driving arrests and crashes, of lives lost and damage done.
Given the prevalence of anti-drunken driving campaigns, this might seem counter-intuitive.
Certainly, a visitor from a foreign land might be forgiven for concluding, based on the steady drumbeat of anti-drunken driving messages, that Americans take drunken driving very seriously indeed.
But that would be a mistake, easily corrected by glancing at a newspaper, scanning the crime blotter and seeing all the names of the people arrested for driving while drunk.
Occasionally, a particularly egregious case of drunken driving will make headlines, which is what happened over the holidays when Troy City Council President Carmella Mantello arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated.
In what appears to be a case of drunken road rage, Mantello chased a Rotterdam driver for about 30 miles, from Interstate 890 to Clifton Park.
I’ve tried to put myself in her shoes and imagine what she was thinking when she conducted herself in such a reckless and self-destructive fashion, and the only answer I can come up with is: She thought she could get away with it.
And maybe she was right to think that.
Maybe she was right to think that, in a country where drunken driving is depressingly, infuriatingly common, she could make it from Rivers Casino in Schenectady to Troy without incident. She was wrong, but she very well could have been right.
It’s also worth noting that, Mantello’s humiliation aside, the charges against her — a misdemeanor DWI charge and a ticket for following the driver in front of her too closely — don’t fully capture the risk she posed to others when she got behind the wheel.
There was one other headline-generating drunken driving arrest over the holidays.
Sheila McBain, director of the statewide central register for the Office of Children and Family Services, crashed her car in Latham and fled on foot, according to police.
Like Mantello, McBain was charged with misdemeanor driving while intoxicated, along with leaving the scene of an accident and using a portable electronic device while driving.
Thus far, Mantello and McBain have gotten off easy.
Their drunken driving could have killed someone, and both will likely plead guilty to a misdemeanor, or less. In a fairer and more just world, the consequences for their actions would be far more serious.
While I’m not ordinarily a fan of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, the pervasiveness of drunken driving demands tougher penalties than the ones our criminal justice system typically metes out.
There are bills in the Assembly that would strengthen the state’s DWI laws, and they deserve serious consideration. A good place to start would be making DWI a felony, and automatically suspending driver’s licenses for a lengthy period of time upon conviction.
If there’s any good news, it’s that a lot of people have taken the anti-drunken driving messages to heart. In the 1970s, alcohol was a factor in a stunning 60 percent of all traffic fatalities. Today, it’s a factor in just 28 percent of traffic fatalities.
That’s a tremendous achievement.
But it’s not good enough.
We need to take drunken driving more seriously, and hope that everyone — from our public figures and state officials on down — gets the message.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]