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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2003

Get tough with drunks

Maybe there's just no stopping drunks who drive after over-indulging. But we have no choice except to keep trying.

The Washington-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said recently that there is just a 1 in 50 chance that any particular drunken driver will be arrested. So most drunks behind the wheel don't worry about getting stopped.

That's a big concern for the sober driving public, and short of a police state with roadblocks at every intersection, not a lot can be done about it. There's not enough manpower, not enough money.

At the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that 17,448 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2001. It is not clear, on the face of it, whether the drinking drivers were always at fault, but that doesn't really matter. Crashes involving alcohol made up 41 percent of traffic deaths.

One in five unlicensed drivers, including those motoring with suspended licenses and those who didn't renew once their suspension expired, were involved in fatal crashes. The percentage of unlicensed drivers varies from state to state, highest in New Mexico at 23.1 percent, lowest in Maine, at 6.1 percent.

Oddly, those (about 50 percent) who don't reinstate suspended licenses may drive more safely than those who reinstate or who get a hardship license after a DUI conviction, the AAA Foundation says. It bases its conclusion on research reported in 2001 on offenders in Ohio.

Researchers suspect that while these convicted drunken drivers still drive, they drive less and drive more carefully than they once did, though they must still be considered high risk.

The efforts of the nonprofit foundation - dedicated to research to identify and resolve traffic safety problems and to educating the public about solutions - have a profound impact on the driving public.

The foundation wants to see tougher enforcement, ranging from screening to assure that DUI convicts are in treatment programs to jail time for those refusing blood-alcohol exams, a deterrent stronger than license suspension. The group also wants an end to diversion programs and those that expunge drunken driving offenses from a record, and it seeks the impoundment of a drunken driver's license plates when his or her license to operate is suspended.

States can require blood and/or breathalyzer tests of persons stopped for suspected drunken driving. In Minnesota, where saying no to testing can bring a 90-day jail sentence, only 14 percent refuse. In Illinois, where a six-month license suspension is as tough as it gets, the refusal rate is 38 percent. Talk about what works!

The most practical of the foundation's proposals are worth serious consideration, because the menace of drunken driving never goes away.



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