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Editorial: Get tougher on drunk drivers

Editorial: Get tougher on drunk drivers

One way to discourage drunk driving is to increase penalties. New York lawmakers have the ability to do that
Editorial: Get tougher on drunk drivers
Despite all the publicity over the years, many people still aren’t getting the message about DWI.
Photographer: peter r. barber

It’s easy to get complacent about the dangers around us, especially when we’ve made so much progress in making our lives safer.

Those of us of another generation recall today with cringing guilt how we used to pile in a car with our friends after a rousing night of drinking, then drive around in a state of blissful, ignorant inebriation.

We remember the days when if you got pulled over, the officer would ask if you were OK to make it home, and then trust you to continue on your way.

Looking back, we thank our lucky stars to be alive and we thank the Lord we didn’t kill anyone along the way. Not everyone was so blessed.

As the crashes and deaths mounted, drunk driving changed from a necessary skill-set to a plague.

PROGRESS BUT STILL PROBLEMS

As we became more aware of the dangers, we passed tougher laws. We raised the drinking age.

We created Stop-DWI patrols and recycled the money collected from DWI fines back into even more anti-DWI prevention and education.

And the numbers came down. The death toll on our streets declined significantly.

In the mid-1970s, alcohol was a factor in over 60 percent of all traffic fatalities, and two-thirds of traffic deaths among persons aged 16 to 20 involved alcohol. 

From the mid-1980s to the present, the rate of traffic deaths due to alcohol was cut in half. And today, alcohol is a factor in 28 percent of traffic deaths. That’s real progress.

But if we ever think we can become complacent about how far we’ve come in this fight, we need look no further for a reminder than last week’s column by our business editor, John Cropley, about the death of his 14-year-old nephew at the hands of a drunk driver.

John wrote the column the day after the tragedy, while the pain was still new and his thoughts and feelings still brutally clear.

The driver, he wrote, had three previous drunk driving arrests.

Yet he was still behind the wheel when he crossed into an intersection in Omaha, Nebraska, and plowed into the car carrying John’s brother-in-law Bryan and Bryan’s 14-year-old son Trevor as they were on their way to a school choir event.

At the end of the column, John laments that this tragedy will be repeated again and again unless a drunk person makes the decision to turn over the keys to a sober friend.

Many people will make that decision out of a sense of responsibility. Other people need an incentive.

As much as we think we’ve had a breakthrough on this problem, Trevor’s death at the hands of a repeat drunk driver reminds us that many still aren’t getting the message.

Even with the decline in deaths nationwide, more than 10,000 people still die each year in the United States due to alcohol-related crashes.

That’s about 28 deaths per day.

One way to discourage drunk driving is to increase penalties. New York lawmakers have the ability to do that.

TOUGHEN STATE LAWS AGAINST DWI

One bill (A2181) increases fines and jail times for virtually all drunk-driving and drugged-driving offenses, establishes new drunk driving laws to cover drivers who drive at higher level of intoxication, boosts misdemeanors to felonies (with accompanying fines and jail terms), boosts the penalties for those who drive under the influence while their license is suspended, calls for immediate suspension of licenses upon sentencing, allows for suspension of New York licenses for drunk driving convictions in other states, allows judges to revoke driving privileges for life, expands sentencing for alternative treatment programs and boosts the penalties for failing to complete these programs.

Assembly bill A4404 would impose mandatory jail time on individuals convicted of a second or subsequent DWI.

Right now, jail time is left to a judge’s discretion in many circumstances.

Other legislation pending in the state Assembly (A3228) would increase the license suspension for a second DWI conviction within 10 years from one year to two and allow the state motor vehicles commissioner to issue an additional one-year conditional license that would only allow the person to drive to and from work or medical care.

Since a lot of drunk drivers with suspended licenses drive anyway, bill A2598 would allow the state to impound someone’s vehicle to prevent him from driving, with the length of impoundment depending on the level of the offense. 

Even drivers convicted of a first offense could have their vehicles impounded for up to 15 days under the legislation.

Assembly bill A995 would require forfeiture of vehicles for six months for a second DWI offense and permanent forfeiture and registration denial for third DWI offense.

Assembly bill A894 would increase the financial penalties for all levels of alcohol-related convictions, in some cases doubling the fines. 

And we’ve already endorsed legislation (A8682/S6884) that would close the loophole that allows  impaired drivers who leave the scene of a crash to escape with a lesser penalty, by making it so a driver would be charged with an equally severe crime whether they leave the scene or not.

If people know that the punishment for any kind of drunk driving comes with severe penalties, even after a first offense, they’re likely to think twice before getting behind the wheel.

State lawmakers need to take this seriously and pass much of this legislation. What are they waiting for?

LOWERING THE BAC TO 0.05?

New York, at some point should also look into lowering the blood alcohol threshold for DWI from the current nationwide standard of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) to 0.05 percent. 

That’s the equivalent of about two beers per hour for a 120-pound woman and about three for a 150-pound man.

There’s a bill in the state Assembly (A2302) that would lower the limit. 

Some, including the organization Remove Intoxicated Drivers, backed by two federal studies, contend the 0.05 BAC could go even further to reduce the chances of a fatal crash, perhaps preventing 500-800 deaths a year.

The lower threshold also might help deter more excessive drinking and send a strong message to all drivers about the toughness of the state’s laws.

But another anti-DWI organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has consistently opposed lowering the BAC level to 0.05.

They argue it would be hard to enforce because most people at that level could pass a field sobriety test, that police wouldn’t want to go around arresting people for such a low level of intoxication, and that juries might be reluctant to impose significant penalties on someone arrested for driving under the influence of two or three beers. 

MADD also says the lower BAC would distract from other, more effective means of reducing DWI crashes caused by high-BAC drunk driving, drugged driving and distracted driving.

The lower limit also might not have widespread popular support, even among those who support tough DWI laws.

So passage will require a major political effort.

About 100 developed countries have lowered their DWI threshold to that level, resulting in an average decline in drunk driving crashes of about 8 percent.

But so far, only one state in the United States, Utah, has voted to lower the BAC to 0.05.

The law doesn’t take effect until next month, so there are no statistics about its impact on drunk driving, enforcement or on retail or restaurant sales of alcohol. 

New York officials should monitor that state’s efforts and consider this legislation in the future.

We need to send a strong message to potential drunk drivers that the state will not tolerate drunk driving and that if you do drive drunk, the penalties will be severe and long-lasting. 

The Legislature can send that message by passing tougher laws for first-time offenders, repeat offenders and those who drive at high levels of intoxication.

Drunk driving never should have been acceptable.

Now more than ever, it must be intolerable.

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