Drawing new lines against drunk drivers

In signing a series of tough new state laws against drunk driving this past week. New York Gov. Hugh Carey came down squarely on the side of the public. "The right to drive a motor vehicle," as the governor noted, "is not absolute." And that is especially so regarding drunk driving which, law enforcement experts repeatedly note, is responsible for roughly half of all motor-related fatalities annually in the United States.

The no-nonsense New York laws provide mandatory jail sentences and still fines for various drinking-related offenses, somewhat similar to the approach taken by a number of European nations that have sought to remove incapacitated drivers from the streets. Perhaps equally significant, the new laws are the results of genuine grass-roots lobbying by a statewide citizens group that has decided that the time is at hand to bring the full weight of governmental authority against those persons who misuse their right to drive in such a fashion as to endanger innocent people as well as themselves.

The citizen action against drunk driving in New York, fortunately, is only part of a growing public outrage throughout the US. The New York group, aply called RID -- Remove the Intoxicated Driver -- even held public vigils outside state senate and house legislative chambers to press for the new laws. One provision in the comprehensive package finally enacted provides for mandatory jail sentences of seven to 180 days and fines of up to $300 for a conviction for drunk driving after a driver has already had a alcohol-related offense. Also, drivers who have been convicted of an alcohol-related offense within the prior three years -- only to be again arrested and convicted -- will have their licenses automatically suspended.

At least 19 states are currently working on various solutions to control drunk driving. Proposals range from mandatory sentencing laws, such as those just enacted in New York and in the past several years in the states of Washington and Maine, to innovative alcohol rehabilitation and counseling programs. In Maine, under a new statute, anyone convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol faces a mandatory sentence of 48 hours in jail. Since 1976 , moreover, some 14 states have raised their minimum drinking age. That alone is reckoned to have led to a substantial reduction in nighttime crashes by younger drivers. Hopefully more states will follow suit and raise their drinking age.

While the legal steps and rehabilitation programs are important elements in the fight against drunk driving, it would be a disservice to the American people to ignore the responsibility of the liquor and beer companies for the grim problem. True, some individual liquor firms donate generously to rehabilitation and research programs. But the industry as a whole has yet to throw its weight behind efforts to dissuade even "social drinkers" from driving while under any influence of alcohol. Hypocritical newspaper and magazine ads urging people to drink, but only in "moderation of course," will not reduce the carnage on the nation's highways resulting from intoxicated drivers.

The message is now coming through loud and clear that the public is appalled at the toll taken by the drunken driver. Are the liquor and beer indust ries really listening?

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