Fighting drunken driving with tougher legislation

Getting drunken drivers off the roads - and keeping them off - is of mounting public concern across the nation.

And 1982 may be the year that positive steps in this highway safety direction gain momentum.

Within the next few weeks, President Reagan is expected to appoint a national commission on drunk driving. Its task will be to come up with recommendations for wiping out, or at least sharply reducing, what has become an increasingly serious public safety menace.

Proposals for stiffer laws are on lawmaker dockets in at least 22 states from New England to Hawaii, and judges in increasing numbers are talking tough.

Thus far, however, not enough of those who could do something about the drunk driver problem - not only those who operate motor vehicles while intoxicated, but legislators and judges - may not have gotten the message.

Although liquor-related highway deaths have reached awesome proportions and continue to climb in most states, progress toward handling this road safety challenge has been both slow and spotty.

Spurred by several multiple-death liquor-related traffic accidents over the Christmas and New Year's weekends, a new push is on in Massachusetts that could greatly toughen drunk driver statutes here.

Legislation filed for consideration in coming weeks mandates a six-month jail term for anyone convicted of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol. A companion measure would make a vehicular homicide involving a drunk driver a felony instead of a misdemeanor, with a prison term of up to 15 years.

Other similar legislation introduced also would deal harshly with those found guilty of a liquor-related traffic death. Instead of 15 years, however, the maximum imprisonment would be 10 years. Currently, 21/2 years in prison is the stiffest penalty for such homicides.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts division of the American Automobile Association (AAA) is pressing for what could be a significant tightening of a loophole in current law. Now a drunk driver can avoid jailing by agreeing to attend a driver alcohol education program.

''This alternative arrangement makes little sense in dealing with repeat offenders,'' holds AAA spokesman Richard Hoover. His organization's proposal would restrict the educational programs to those convicted for the first time. In other instances there would be no such option and judges would impose penalties such as license revocation, fines, and jailing.

Although the number of people killed on Bay State highways declined by 143 last year from 738 the year before, the proportion of such accidents that were liquor-related was in excess of 70 percent.

Gov. Edward J. King and George A. Luciano, his secretary for public safety, credit the April 1979 raising of the minimum drinking age from 18 to 20 as a major factor in the decline in fatal highway accidents.

Besides the Massachusetts measures to strengthen so-called DWI laws (driving while intoxicate), proposals to strengthen laws will come before legislators this year in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

Critics of drunk driver laws here in Massachusetts say laws are not stringent enough and all too often are not strictly enforced. Judges are faulted for being too lenient, giving light fines or suspended sentences rather than jailings, even for repeat offenders.

Alternative penalties, such as required participation in alcoholism rehabilitation programs, are increasingly under fire as ineffective in appreciably reducing the number of motorists who take to the roads after drinking.

Foes of stricter penalties maintain little would be accomplished beyond filling up jails and imposing economic hardships on convicted offenders and their families.

In Maine, which has what may be the nation's toughest penalties, the number of road deaths has been halved during the new law's first three months on the books. Gov. Joseph E. Brennan, who pushed hard for passage, credits the law for the improved highway safety record.

Drunk drivers convicted of a first offense under the Maine measure receive a 48-hour jailing. Longer sentences and stiff fines are required for subsequent convictions.

Despite the law's success in holding down traffic fatalities, it has posed problems of jail overcrowding in some counties on weekends.

Last winter Wyoming lawmakers, concerned over the potential impact of an influx of drunk drivers on available jail cells, repealed a mandatory two-day minimum sentence measure approved in 1980 that was about to go into effect.

The size of the nation's drunk driving problem is underscored by statistics from the National Safety Council (NSC) showing that more than half of the 52,600 highway fatalities in 1980 were DWI-related. An additional estimated 1 million people were injured seriously in liquor-connected motor accidents.

Although figures concerning traffic fatalities for 1981 are not yet complete, the NSC reports 41,890 such deaths during the first 10 months of the year.

While cautious in forecasting a breakthrough, Chuck Hurley, executive director of the NSC's federal affairs office, notes that ''the public is getting angry and demanding something be done.''

Special task forces to shape strategies and recommend administrative and legislative approaches to deal with the DWI challenge have been created in at least seven states - California, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. A similar panel is about to be named by Governor King in Massachusetts.

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