President vs. drunk drivers

Pardon us, if you will, for striking what may seem a provincial note in mentioning that the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving came to Boston recently to conduct a day of public hearings. It is noteworthy, however, that such a national commission (set up by President Reagan this past April) even exists - and that by April 30, 1983, the panel of 30 distinguished experts in the highway safety and alcoholism fields will offer policy recommendations for the federal as well as state and local governments.

The commission - divided into subcommittees - has been holding hearings around the US.

While the meetings are all somewhat different, there are themes common to them all: namely, a sense of urgency that positive steps must and can be taken to curb a problem that is now said to be responsible for half of all traffic fatalities in the US; and an increasing recognition that there are solutions for curbing such tragedies - providing there is enough political will on the part of lawmakers and public officials.

Over the years this newspaper has pointed out a number of steps that could be taken to reduce the drunk driving problem, including raising the drinking age back to 21 in those remaining states that currently allow legal drinking at 18, 19, or 20; encouraging the entertainment industry to be more honest in its depiction of alcohol; requiring some form of swift administrative license revocation for intoxication while driving; establishing better treatment and rehabilitation programs for alcoholics.

Given the magnitude of the problem, the time has long passed for a leisurely approach to it. In this regard, two developments might be noted:

* Legislation before Congress would set up a national drunk driving register that would collate information from all over the country. The so-called Pell-Danforth bill would also provide special federal funds to states that set up comprehensive alcoholism safety programs. A federal program, such as this, seems reasonable. But even if such a measure does not eventually clear Congress (it is currently before the House), the states could go ahead on their own and set up comprehensive programs.

* In recent months a number of states have passed tough new drunk driving laws. Enforcement in many of these jurisdictions is now intense. But will that prove to be the case early next year, after November elections are over?

What is urgently needed is a comprehensive, day-to-day program much like the Scandinavian system under which motorists face swift and no-nonsense penalties for driving while intoxicated, as well as some form of treatment or rehabilitation.

So, a bouquet to the presidential commission. Its task now is to come forth with the strongest, most far-reaching set of recommendations possible. The public awaits action.

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