Dwi: Should Punishment Be Stricter For Repeat Offenders?
In 2001, alcohol-related auto accidents took the lives of 17,448 people across the United States. Statistics show that nearly 80 percent of those fatal accidents were caused by drivers with a history of driving while intoxicated (DWI). There is no shortage of horror stories in which innocent people have been killed by a drunk driver who later turns out to have a prior record for DWI offenses. The question of whether repeat offenders should be subject to stricter punishment is hardly new, but it is a complex question even though it seems to tackle an issue that has no gray areas.
Typical repeat DWI offenders will have a blood alcohol level of up to three times the legal limit by the time they get behind the wheel. Three-fourths of repeat offenders can be classified as alcohol abusers or alcohol dependent. Their consumption of alcohol is frequent and chronic. Perhaps most alarming, however, is that most of these drivers are neither remorseful for the damage they inflict nor deterred by the threat of arrest or loss of driving privileges. Either they believe they can escape getting caught, or else they believe their punishment will turn out to be minimal. Not even the threat to their own physical safety (many drunk drivers end up as fatalities themselves) seems to inhibit them.
In the past, repeat DWI offenders might be given PROBATION or minimal time in jail, along with a suspended driver's license. In some cases, the punishment might be a specified period of community service. The NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD (NTSB) has called for states to eliminate community service as a punishment, in part because it keeps prosecutions off offenders' records and makes repeat offenses more likely.
Treatment for alcohol abuse works in some but not all cases. It is certainly worth trying, but in many cases repeat offenders are not interested in being helped. They will go through a treatment program if it is required by law, but positive effects may be short-lived.
Partly in response to the federal government's call for tougher laws and partly in response to groups such as MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING (MADD), state governments are working to make DWI laws stricter and more than just an inconvenience for recidivists. In Massachusetts, for example, a new law went into effect on November 28, 2002, that allows judges to consider DWI convictions that are more than ten years old when sentencing a repeat offender. Under the old law they could not be considered, and a driver whose earlier conviction had been classified a "youthful indiscretion" could be treated as a first-time offender. The 2002 law requires that anyone who receives a second conviction faces two years probation, a suspended license, and 14 days at an in-patient alcohol treatment program.
Other measures include the use of technology. Ignition interlock devices, which require the driver to pass a breath test before the car will start, have met with positive results. A study in Maryland showed that DWI repeat offenders who used ignition interlock devices had a RECIDIVISM rate one-third lower than those who did not. Some municipalities have tried electronic monitoring. In Los Angeles, electronic monitoring lowered the recidivism rate for DWI offenders and also cut jail costs significantly.
Some states have pushed to be able to charge repeat DWI offenders in fatal crashes with felony murder. In some municipalities, bartenders who serve people who are knowingly inebriated and allow them to drive have been subject to criminal charges.
Even strict measures are not 100 per cent effective. The National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD) estimates that up to 80 percent of DWI offenders will take the risk of driving with a suspended license. Lynwood Anthony Vrba of Waco, Texas had eight DWI convictions, including two felonies, before he swerved in front of another car and earned a ninth conviction. (The driver of that car happened to be an agent of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission). His prior felonies allowed a judge to sentence him to 60 years in prison in early 2000. The system may have worked on one level, but the truth is that if Vrba had not been stopped that day, he may have had yet another serious accident.
A driver who wishes to thwart the law can usually do so. DWI offenders are often able, for example, to determine the exact locations of police roadblocks based on established patterns and avoid them by traveling an alternate route. People who have ignition interlock devices in their cars can have a sober friend start the car for them. The trick for law enforcement officials is to stay one step ahead of the criminals. The police can easily vary their patterns and stop cars randomly on different roads. As for technology, inter-lock devices can be equipped with a restart option that requires the driver to take a breath test several times during a car trip, even if the car is still running. This arrangement keeps the offender from drinking while driving. Moreover, if those who serve liquor or who allow drunk drivers behind the wheel know that they can face criminal charges, it stands to reason that they will be more careful about letting a drunk person get behind the wheel of a car.
Ultimately, the most effective way to deal with repeat DWI offenders may be a combination of these measures. It may not be possible to keep DWI recidivists off the road completely, but making it increasingly difficult for them to remain on the road can yield positive results.
Beck, Kenneth H., et al. 1999. "Effects of Ignition Interlock License Restrictions on Drivers with Multiple Alcohol Offenses: A Randomized Trial in Maryland." American Journal of Public Health (November 1).
"Judges May Weigh Full Drinking Record." 2002. Boston Globe (November 28).