With Drunk Driving Laws, Is Our Goal Safer Roads Or Putting More People In Jail?
All of a sudden, North Dakota has a drunk driving problem. Not because of an actual increases in drunk driving arrests or alcohol-related fatalities or crashes which have all remained relatively static, growing in the context of an increasing population and vehicle miles traveled on our roads. Rather, North Dakota has a drunk driving because the media in the state (most notably Forum Communicatinos) has sensationalized a few deadly DUI crashes, and fanned the flames of public passions over those tragedies with scalding editorials blaming legislators who are supposedly in the grips of the hospitality and beverage industry for not making tougher laws.
“In a state that does a lot of things well, policymakers have been reluctant to seriously address a problem they’ve known about for decades,” writes the always intemperate Fargo Forum editorial board. “The refusal of the Legislature to send the right message to would-be drunken drivers suggests – does not yet prove – that the beverage lobby and hospitality industry have had their way with lawmakers.”
That accusation doesn’t quite mesh with the facts. I happen to know that the North Dakota Hospitality Association – a trade group representing bars, hotels and restaurants in the state – has in recent legislative sessions backed both a law requiring DUI offenders to check in with law enforcement for breathalyzer checks and a program cracking down on fake ID’s.
But the Forum’s propensity to cast aspersions first and ask questions later aside, the truth is that the state’s policymakers have taken action. In addition to the policies already mentioned, law enforcement routinely institute DUI check points and other enforcement programs. Have they made our roads safer? Not really. The increase in arrests hasn’t really impacted the number of fatalities and crashes.
Will more laws help? I think it depends on the laws. There are certainly some very stupid new laws being proposed in this environment of hysteria the media has created. One would brand DUI offenders with a sort of official “scarlet letter” barring them from buying alcohol. Another would impose draconian fines and jail sentences, as well as extremely long license suspensions.
This is the sort of unthinking, knee-jerk, “get tough” policy that is less likely to make our roads safer than to create backlogs in our courts and overcrowding in our jails, along with huge new expenses for the taxpayers.
We need to ask ourselves what our goal is when it comes to DUI policies. Are we after a sort of legislative lynching, whereby we take out our public angst over stories of DUI tragedies through the law-making process? Or do we want to think about things that might actually make our roads safer?
Maybe it’s time to get creative. At the Grand Forks Herald today opinion editor Tom Dennis says “It’s the driving, not the drunk,” and wonders if we should consider policies such as a safe ride home program. That, rather than the neanderthal “get tough” attitude that seems to permeate the thinking of some policymakers, should be the approach we should take.
We should also consider if our prohibitions on under-21 drinking aren’t creating unhealthy attitudes about drinking. Delaying legal exposure to alcohol for our youths until their early 20′s is only serving to turn drinking into a sort of attractive taboo, and it drives underage drinking into unsafe locations where large amounts of alcohol are consumed in a short amount of time.
Drinking habits formed while young can carry into adulthood.
But those are things we can debate as we talk about how to make our roads safer. What won’t make our roads safer, and what should be rejected out of hand, is knee-jerk “get tough” laws that are born more of a desire in some policymakers to pander to hysteria than any sound policy reasoning.Tags: drinking and driving, dui, nanny statism, North Dakota News