Experts say attitudes, not laws, will halt drunk driving
Atlanta — New initiatives are needed to keep the national campaign to curb drunk driving from running into a dead end. Legal and legislative methods are not sufficient to solve the problem, say some experts, including members of the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving (PCDD). What is really vital, insists commission member James S. Kemper Jr., is a long-term program designed to change public attitudes in the United States about drinking and driving. He would like to see the combination viewed as socially unacceptable as it is in Scandinavian countries and in some other places.
Mr. Kemper, an insurance executive, told an American Bar Association audience here that he advocates the formation of a national consortium of groups devoted to minimizing the number of highway fatalities related to alcohol use. Among other things, PCDD's recommendations called for: adopting state laws that would ban plea bargaining for those arraigned on drunk-driving charges; imposing mandatory jail sentences for repeat offenders; and starting widespread community-education programs on the hazards of mixing alcohol with automobile use. Further, it wants all states to make drinking illegal for those under 21.
Many states have already moved in these directions. However, mandatory sentencing continues to be highly controversial. Opponents say it leads to even bigger court backlogs. And some judges and juries seem reluctant to impose the required stiff jail sentences on alcohol abusers, so more ''not guilty'' verdicts are returned.
Among the opponents of mandatory sentencing is Washington, D.C., Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon. She points out that 1.5 million pieces of civil litigation annually are growing out of drunk-driving cases. Judge Bacon says, ''Traditional criminal law practices and punishments won't solve the drunk-driving problem.'' She prefers ''early treatment programs,'' which might avoid trials in some cases, and a spectrum of sentencing options (including community-service programs) available to judges.
John H. Lacey, a University of North Carolina highway safety researcher, says that suspension and revocation of drivers' licenses is the most effective sanction against drunk driving. His studies show that those who are barred from driving for six months or more are likely to change their drinking-and-driving habits.
Mr. Lacey indicates that rehabilitation programs alone don't generally deter repeat drunk-driving offenders. ''The public doesn't view them as 'tough,' '' he says. He is not opposed to such treatment, especially for alcoholics, but suggests it be offered in addition to - not as a replacement for - license revocation.
Ron E. Engle, program analyst for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, calls for adoption of chemical Breathalyzer tests by all states. But he stresses that such devices must be carefully checked for accuracy before they are used, and such tests later offered as supportive evidence in court. There have been instances lately of police radio signals affecting the accuracy of these tests.
Mr. Engle notes that the Department of Transportation has found that the use of seat belts are ''the best defense against drunk drivers.''
Ron Reeder, executive director of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances, lauds states for passing significant new legislation to deter drunk driving. But Mr. Reeder warns against ''loopholes'' in some state laws, such as those that make vague distinctions between alcohol and other drugs. Such laws are difficult to enforce and sometimes are overturned by the courts.
Reeder also says there is widespread misuse of the term ''legal limit.'' He points out: ''There is not a single state in the country that doesn't make it a crime to drive under the influence (of alcohol) or while intoxicated. We shouldn't mislead the public into thinking they can drink a significant amount of alcohol and not get drunk.''
Mr. Kemper says that the drunk-driving problem needs to be in the national spotlight. But he insists that congressional legislation or White House edicts will do little to solve it. He calls upon states and local communities to step up their campaigns, perhaps using traffic fines and similar revenues to fund their own programs. He also says the private sector, particularly automobile manufacturers, insurance companies, and even liquor distributors, should take the lead in discouraging drivers from drinking.