Incremental progress against drunken driving has saved untold lives through cultural change, stiffer laws and safer cars. But two recent tragedies in which abuse of alcohol is suspected as a major factor demand more action.
Last month, Mark W. Mullan drove into members of a family as they crossed a street in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood. Judy and Dennis Schulte died and their daughter-in-law and infant grandson were hospitalized in critical condition.
Last week, Michael Anthony Robertson, driving the wrong way on Highway 520, ran into Morgan Fick Williams’ car. She died as a result.
Mullan and Robertson both had histories that should have kept them off the road. Mullan had so many problems with alcohol and driving that the case prompted the state to schedule an emergency meeting for Tuesday to consider how the Legislature might toughen DUI laws.
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My wife had an idea. We were talking about the 520 collision and she said there should be a law that keeps anyone arrested with an illegal blood-alcohol level from driving an SUV or other large vehicle.
That seemed like a good idea to me — not a solution, but another concrete step. So in my frustration, I started imagining new punishments. The vehicle should be seized and held until the driver has had a hearing in court and then, if the driver is convicted, the vehicle should be sold and the money put toward victim compensation and maybe substance-abuse prevention, or DUI enforcement. Convicted drivers should be limited to small cars.
Mullan drove a Chevrolet Silverado, and Robertson drove a Ford Explorer.
The large size of some vehicles might not make a significant difference in a collision with pedestrians, but in crashes with other cars, it would, though apparently less so than it once did.
I called the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which collects data, tests cars for safety, educates the public and reviews driving laws. Its goal is to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage from crashes.
Russ Rader, senior vice president, communications, said two things have changed in recent years. Automobile makers changed the design of SUVs so that when they hit a smaller car head-on or from the side, the SUV or pickup will connect with the crash, absorbing structures of the smaller car rather than riding up and crushing it. And smaller cars themselves now have more safety features.
Still, he said, “the laws of physics can’t be designed away. People in crashes in smaller, lighter vehicles are always at risk in crashes with bigger and heavier vehicles.”
Car size is sometimes an issue, but the driver remains the main problem.
“Deterrence is really the key,” Rader said, “having good laws that are strenuously enforced so people know that if they drink and drive there is a high likelihood they’ll be caught.”
We also need to make sure that when they are caught, there’s less chance they’ll walk away and do it again. The insurance institute recently reviewed Washington’s laws, and Rader said it liked the requirement that some drivers use an ignition-interlock system meant to stop them from driving if they are drunk.
But good tools have to be used effectively. Two different judges had told Robertson to install an interlock device before he drove again, but he didn’t do it.
Why would a matter like that ever be left up to the driver?
I know stiffer enforcement can be costly. But too often there’s a far higher price to pay when holes are left in the prevention net.
The best solution, Rader said, is to keep people who’ve had too much to drink “from getting behind the wheel in the first place.” The wheel of any car.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org