A program for getting drinking drivers off the road

Everyone says our primary mission is to ''get the drunk driver off the road.'' We should all recognize that those who are guilty of illegal drinking-driving should be punished; but we also know that court actions are often slow, due to large volumes of cases before courts, as well as the inability of the court systems to respond promptly in an adequate way. What is needed is what has been called by others a two-track system. One track should deal administratively with the license and the getting of drinking drivers off the road quickly, while the other track deals with punishing offenders in the courts.

We need three elements of an adequate program to ''get the drinking drivers off the road.''

* Laws should provide for a ''pre-arrest breath test'' to be followed by a test on a professional breath-testing machine, and an immediate administrative revocation of the driver's license if the tests show that the driver had more than the legal limit in the blood.

In this connection consideration should be given to changing state laws to lower the legal limit from the usual .10 percent (alcohol in the blood) to .05 percent as is the case in Sweden and other foreign countries.

* Laws should provide a severe penalty for driving after revocation or suspension.

It is well known that many who have had licenses suspended or revoked proceed to drive without a license. They plan to be careful not to violate the law so they will not be found without a license. But if the penalty for driving without a license is not severe, they may decide they can stand the penalty, if caught.

In Iowa the law was changed to increase the penalty for driving without a license from a fine of $100 and a possible 30-day jail sentence to a maximum fine of $1,000 and a possible jail term up to one year.

This penalty should be well-publicized so that all citizens will know about it. It is important not only to reach the minds of persons under suspension or revocations but also those who consider what might happen to them if they drink and drive and then get licenses suspended or revoked.

* Newspapers should report names, addresses, ages, and times of arrest of all persons arrested; also those having had licenses suspended or revoked.

We believe the Cedar Rapids Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) pioneered in this. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat began this practice in December 1981.

A person may think he can get away with driving without a license; but if he sees his name in the newspaper and knows the public has been advised of his suspension, he will know that people in his area, perhaps the police, will observe him. Some concerned citizens may report to the police that he is driving without a license. This in turn may cause the police to undertake surveillance and arrest. This will help to create the necessary deterrence.

The effect of this total program is to force the drinking-driving decision to the period before drinking, rather than allow this decision to be made after drinking but before driving.

There are many other actions which could be taken as well:

* Roadblock testing.

While there have been some constitutional problems with this in the US, it appears that under some circumstances this can be done.

Roadblocks make apprehension a matter of chance, beyond the ability of the driver to control or reduce. They provide deterrence - an acceptable excuse for allowing another person to drive because, as Dr. Robert B. Voas puts it in his report about such a person: ''. . . even though I am unaffected by drink, I might be stopped and required to take a breath test which could be positive.''

* Response to the youth problem.

It is well known that young persons are overrepresented in the drinking-driving category, considering their numbers. Three effective actions can be taken - two legislative and one educational.

There is much evidence that where legal drinking ages were lowered from 21 there was a great increase in youth drinking and driving. Then when they were raised to 20 and 21, such as in the case of Michigan and elsewhere, there was a reduction. It would be helpful if there could be a uniform age of 21 across the country.

The other legislative approach to the youth problem would be that which was taken by the New York legislature. It has required a lower blood alcohol level (.05 percent) for teen-age drivers.

About the educational approach: We all know the effectiveness of a recovered alcoholic working with an unrecovered alcoholic to persuade such a person to go for sobriety. We know about negative peer pressure to drink among teen-agers. Recently in Massachusetts an educational experiment has proven the effectiveness of positive peer pressure to avoid drinking and driving.

All teen-agers seeking a license to drive should be properly educated. There could be a requirement of a special test to be given administratively to youth about the effects of alcohol on driving. We now test all applicants for drivers' licenses about various aspects of traffic safety - about speed and other laws governing driving. Why not include aspects of the problems of drinking and driving?

* Increased fines and penalties largely counterproductive.

There is great temptation to adopt severe penalties for drinking-driving offenses, especially in the case of repeat offenders. It should be recognized that the more severe the penalty, the more unlikely it is that it will be imposed. The more severe the sentence or penalty, the greater is the bargaining power of the accused and the likelihood that he will be charged with a lesser offense. Defendants are more likely to hire lawyers, plead innocent and require trials. They are also more apt to ask for jury trials than to simply go before a judge. All these factors place more pressures upon the judicial system and increase costs.

* Support for additional needed enforcement.

We need more patrolmen to work at apprehending drinking drivers. This may be funded by a possible surcharge on fines levied or supplying part of fine money to local enforcement activities.

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