Cities, counties toughen laws to curb drunk drivers

In their battles to curb drunken driving, a number of cities and counties in the United States are no longer content to follow the lead of their states. Many are choosing to break new ground on their own.

* In most of Illinois, convicted drunk drivers face a new stiff fine of up to has been more than doubled. Village board members decided earlier this year that a $2,500 maximum fine could send a stronger message to anyone thinking of combining drinking and driving on Mount Prospect streets.

* In one district of Montgomery County, Md., as many as 5,000 cars a night are routinely stopped by police along several main highways for a brief sobriety check. The great majority are ushered on within seconds. Since the program was launched last November, arrests have decreased from a high of six an hour to about 25 a month.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, call it a ''roadblock'' and tavern owners complain it has cut down their business by 30 to 40 percent. But last month, obviously convinced that the idea was worthwhile, all other police districts in Montgomery County launched similar road-check programs.

* In the Long Island community of Smithtown, N.Y., a bartender was convicted and fined $350 for serving one drink too many to a patron who planned to drive himself home. The action, now being appealed, is part of a fresh effort in New York's Suffolk County to step up enforcement of a 1933 state law that forbids serving liquor to someone already intoxicated. Such local action is one more sign of growing public intolerance of the drunken driver and the tragedies he too often leaves behind.

Village leaders in suburban Mount Prospect, for instance, decided on the tougher ordinance while they were considering adoption of the new Illinois law.

''We just felt that one good way to get across the idea that we consider this a serious problem . . . and won't tolerate excess drinking by drivers . . . was to impact the pocketbook,'' says board member Gerald Farley who proposed the hike.

Indeed, Mr. Farley, who says he hopes other cities will follow suit, originally proposed a doubly high $5,000 maximum fine.

Mount Prospect Police Chief Ronald Pavlock says the suburban law is welcome support for the work his officers do, and he hopes it will cut down on the number of intoxicated drivers. In his view, much now depends on the support the court system and judges decide to give.

For years stories have made the rounds of how easy it is for drunken drivers to wriggle out of convictions -- through plea bargaining and because of sympathetic judges, who see them long after the incident dressed in their Sunday best.

Several jurisdictions are looking into the possibility of videotaping arrested drivers taking the alcohol tests. This would give judges and juries a more graphic picture of the driver's self-control and sobriety at the time of arrest. Convictions and guilty pleas tend to go up where videotaping has been added.

A number of counties around the country have set up their own task forces to decide what, if any, special action they should take. The National Association of Counties is encouraging its member jursidictions to give more thought to jail alternatives such as treatment and temporary suspension of the driver's license or car registration.

''Our feeling is that jails are already overcrowded and that they aren't really the answer,'' says National Association of Counties associate director Herb Jones. ''One of our suggestions is that abandoned schools could be converted for use for alternative programs where treatment, counseling, and advice would be available.''

Maryland's Capt. John Baker, commander of the Wheaton-Glenmont police disctict, says he had been searching for a more effective way to enforce existing laws that would not overly tax his district's limited manpower.

He says it is surprisingly easy for his officers to tell quickly -- just by talking to the driver and asking him for his license -- if the driver has been drinking. Also, the process of confirming that suspicion by tests is now speedier than it used to be.

''We've had a lot of favorable feedback from citizens themselves,'' he says. ''Very few people ever see drunk drivers arrested but, with this, they see us out there actually trying to do something about the problem. . . . And we are noticing the road check is changing some habits with drivers who have been drinking. Often papa's making mamma do the driving.''

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