More Of The Same Won’t Fix North Dakota’s DUI Problem


Over the last year, North Dakota’s Fargo-centric media has hyped a couple of tragic DUI accidents. Now, on the basis of that hype, there are several proposals heading to the legislative session to “fix” the DUI problem.

They range from the wacky (state Senator Tim Mathern wants the licenses of DUI offenders branded) to the extreme (state Rep. Ed Gruchalla wants huge increases in fines and jail time) to legislation proposed by state Rep. Kim Koppleman, announced yesterday, which while more reasonable than these other suggestions is still unlikely to make much of a difference.

Koppelman’s legislation, backed by Governor Jack Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, would impose mandatory jail sentences on first-time DUI offenders and require participation in a 24/7 sobriety program which requires offenders to report to law enforcement twice a day for breathalyzer tests.

The sobriety program is already in place for repeat DUI offenders.

Yet, despite a ramp-up in DUI enforcement (as Governor Dalrymple noted at yesterday’s press conference, DUI arrests are up 53% since 2001), and despite tough new policies already in place such as the sobriety program, alcohol-related traffic fatalities have remained both relatively low and static:


There’s been slight growth, but you need to remember that this is in the context of a dramatic increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled in North Dakota (per the DOT).


Nobody likes to see people die, especially from something as eminently preventable as drunk driving. But the world is an imperfect place, and we’re talking about dozens of death a year. How much lower can we really expect to take that number?

Increased enforcement isn’t making much of a difference. We’ve increased arrests by 53% over the last decade with little impact. Increasing the severity of punishments, too, hasn’t made much of a difference. The 24/7 sobriety program imposed previously by the legislature hasn’t seemed to deter much of anything, nor has past requirements for alcohol counseling.

Maybe it’s time for a different approach. Instead of throwing more tax dollars away on enforcement and sobriety programs, how about a safe ride home program? All the tax dollars we spend on DUI check points and sobriety programs could probably be put to better use, if we’re going to spend tax dollars at all, on subsidizing free cab rides for the inebriated.

Our focus, after all, should be on saving lives not building up law enforcement budgets. And it’s clear that, so far, more arrests and more punishment isn’t working.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • Thresherman

    Naturally, a calm and reasoned response to this is out the window as the “something MUST be done!” crowd subjects the populace to it’s usual shrill caterwauling. The purpose of punishment is to instill a desire to not repeat the offense in the offender. In the case of DUI violations, the percentage of those who are repeat offenders is quite small, so it is fair to say that curent punishment is quite successful in it’s goal. Even among those who have a second violation, the amount who then go one to repeat again is small. So what we have is a very small percentage who are creating the majority of the problems and it is this group that attention should be focused on.
    But, sadly, no, what we are seeing is a group that wants to take a punishment on first offenders, that already is far more severe than equally rated misdemeanors, and pile on even more draconian punishments. Why don’t they just go ahead and have first time offenders branded with a scarlet A on their foreheads? Perhaps they feel that doesn’t provide an adequate social stigma and the offender might have a chance of retaining his job and livilhood.
    I would propose that it be investigated to see what measures would help in curing whatever tendencies that motivate the multiple repeat offenders, you know, the ones that actually caused the fatal accidents that have professional outraged foaming at the mouth over. But that would be a rational approach to the problem and the howling mob wants an emotional release to their desires and I fear that good and decent people are going to be punished to a degree all out of order to their offense just to satisfy carnivorous needs of the mob.
    Rational republics do not pass laws in response to an emotional outburst, but it seems we are no longer a rational republic and are just another step closer to anarchy.

  • Lianne

    Everyone gets an automatic exemption from killing someone durning the first DUI offense?
    I am tired of the same old same old rhetoric from the politicians and the public. Make the conseqences serious enough so that nearly everyone will take them seriously or stop wasting time and energy on this topic.
    I, for one, believe that anyone found quilty of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol should loose their vehicular privilege for life. Now, if you want to be a softy and go for one year for first time offenders, okay.
    It may cause an inconvenience for the family, but the death of a loved one is a life time inconvenience.

    • yy4u2

      I get what you are saying. As Rob pointed out, the world is an imperfect place. Now what if someone lost a loved one to someone falling asleep at the wheel? Or how about someone that had a seizure? Should their family members loose their privileges for life? We can’t legislate stupidity out of people and unfortunately all too often their actions lead to a lifetime of inconvenience to others.

      • Lianne

        Neither of those cases are intentional acts such as the act of getting into a vehicle behind the wheel, turning the key and putting the car into drive knwoing full well you have been drinking. Of course, the world is not perfect. A siezure is completely unexpected, and once a seizure is documented, it takes ‘an act of congress’ to regain one’s license. Falling alseep may be stupidity, but it is at all an intentional act. But, my question is, are we serious about drunk driving or are we just going through some motions to ease the angst? I for one want them to put up some serious consequences or shut-up and move on.

        • yy4u2

          Agreed. You said it best though with these words, “just going through some motions to ease the angst.” If they seriously wanted to ‘save’ lives from drunk driving, they would prohibit the sale of alcohol. It’s more about keeping the tax money flowing than stopping those that make poor choices.

  • spud

    Safe ride home program sounds nice and good in print but how many times is someone offered a ride home and refuse. Not sure how much work has been done on such a program being introduced and of course the all encompassing how much will it cost us to have this? Not sure if this should be said but I wonder just how much time maybe energy would be better word is devoted to DUI enforcement. If someone would have any ideas in writing on the safe ride program that would be something worth reading about. I sometimes think drinking in North Dakota is over done because of boredom. Sad but true.

    • Rob

      Safe ride home program sounds nice and good in print but how many times is someone offered a ride home and refuse.

      I don’t think we can let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

      We’re never going to have zero drunk drivers, but escalating enforcement sure hasn’t done much to stop reduce alcohol-related accidents and fatalities.

      • Tim Heise

        Enforcement has not worked b/c the penalities are so weak and a safe ride home program is a horrible idea that is taking responsibilty away from the people.

  • bigdaddybernie

    Who’s gonna’ pay for the ‘ safe ride home ‘ . . . . volunteers , the bar, or some gummint’ agency? I don’t want my family sharing MY road with ANY impaired driver. We owe drinkers nothing, not even a ride home !
    Get sober or think about it in a cell !

    • Rob

      We owe drinkers nothing, not even a ride home !

      That sounds like a good way to make sure we don’t fix anything.

      • bigdaddybernie

        How would you ” FIX ” it !

  • Tim Heise

    I wholeheartedly support state Rep. Ed Gruchalla “wants huge increases in fines and jail time” plan.

    • Tim Heise

      but Kim’s plan looks good as well.

      • Roy_Bean

        That all sounds good but I can show you real world cases where prosecutors will not prosecute and juries won’t convict because they think the penalties we have now are too harsh. What we have here is knee-jerk DUI legislation in North Dakota to rival the knee-jerk gun legislation in Congress. Before we need new laws we need to enforce what we have. Huge increases in fines and jail time won’t deter anyone if they don’t pay the fines or go to jail.

  • Tim Heise

    Is any plan just going to increase the times that DUIers plead guilty to a lessor charge? Then we’ll still have the same problem.

  • Waski_the_Squirrel

    Politicians can’t be seen to do nothing. They continually have to make news laws and proposals, even if they’re ineffective, because most of the public don’t use logic or facts. Also too many people buy into the “…if it saves just one life it’s worth…” argument.

    As a society we focus too much on the punishment side rather than the prevention side. As an occasional driver and daily walker (all of my commute and my shopping is done on foot), I am sensitive to drunk drivers. I would prefer that driver be taken off the road before he hits me rather than punished afterwards.

  • content

    As a society, we typically don’t view DUI offenses with much seriousness until someone loses a life. How many elected officials in this state have a DUI on their record. Our beloved Heidi Heitkamp hired a chief of staff that has multiple DUI offenses. Until we start to view this offense as the major crime that it is, little will change in our state.

  • Flamejob5

    Anyone ever notice how these relentless, moral do-gooder busy-bodies never have an answer for what their acceptable level of human error is? However low (or average) the current crime rate may be – it’s never acceptable.

    Isn’t a zero crime-rate (or anything even remotely close to zero) actually what is the extremist & fanaticaly unrealistic position to take when flawed human nature is properly accepted & understood? When, for decades, the State has experimented and tried every tecnique imaginable to lower crime stats but those stats remain “stubbornly” static for decades, doesn’t that then prove a point in itself? – that the acceptable (and realistic) level of crime has thus already been achieved?

    Doesn’t continued further punishing then become tyrannical & oppressive? I think so.