Monday’s column about two recent fatal car crashes in which three people died and two were seriously injured drew passionate responses from readers who want something done about drunken driving.
Calls and emails, some from people who’ve been part of the problem themselves, capture the complexity involved in preventing more such tragedies, and offer the seeds of solutions.
I want to walk through some of the responses that help point us toward what is most likely to work.
Let’s start with John, who said in an email that discussions rarely include the perspective of people like him. John has a third DUI case pending.
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He said he drives after getting drunk because he has to get home and because alcohol makes him feel confident, and because “there aren’t many options for a designated driver. All my friends are drunks. We were raised to drink because that’s what a hard worker does after a hard day.”
He said repeat offenders don’t worry about the legal consequences because they’re sure they’ll get their licenses back, and that being forced to attend AA meetings can make them feel like “we are being bullied to change and a natural response to that is rebellion (repeating our stupidity). I hope this sheds some light.”
Patti wrote that she was convicted of DUI twice. Although her license was taken away, she said, “That did not stop me from driving every day without a license or insurance, and many days I was drunk.”
People like her, she continued, “need to get treatment that works” — something she eventually was able to find.
“On May 14th I will celebrate 10 years clean and sober. Not because of anything the state did for me. My church sent me to a faith-based program called Teen Challenge. I was there for 16 months. Three weeks of inpatient (I did a couple of those) does not even begin to compare to 16 months.
“The state needs to find a treatment solution that actually works.” she said.
Roy, who also has 10 years of sobriety after having been a repeat drunken driver, took a different tack. He said it’s too easy to avoid responsibility and suggested a mandatory one-year jail sentence for anyone caught driving drunk with a suspended license, or while on probation. He changed only after a judge said he had to complete 150 consecutive days of AA meetings or else spend a year in jail.
Their approaches needn’t be mutually exclusive.
I heard from people who deal with drunken driving from other perspectives, too.
Chris, a former prosecutor and now a police officer, said getting Breathalyzer reports admitted into evidence consistently would make a difference. He said at present drivers can refuse a field sobriety test, and lawyers can get the results thrown out because of issues with the way they were obtained.
Jay actually has multiple perspectives. He described himself as a 26-year firefighter, a 30-year recovering alcoholic and founder of an addiction-recovery agency. Jay said the legal system is too lenient and that most recovery programs are ineffective. He believes we can do better, and suggested that one day all cars will have ignition interlock devices that prevent a drunk from driving.
Readers suggested adding the cost of such a device to the driving license or car- registration fee of the person convicted of DUI.
I also believe evidence-based treatment ought to be mandatory. Don’t waste tax money on any program that can’t prove its effectiveness.
Several readers said that because excessive drinking is at the root of the problem, solutions should focus on reducing opportunities to drink. Dale suggested that convicted drunken drivers should have a special stamp on the back of their driver’s license. Merchants should be required to check licenses, he said, and prohibited from selling liquor to anyone with a stamp.
I think we should use the state law that allows vehicle seizure for repeat offenders, and jail people who ignore license suspensions.
Kimber Rotchford, a Port Townsend doctor who specializes in pain management, wrote, “Effective FDA approved medical treatment for alcohol dependence is available. With a shot of a medication each month I guarantee you we would witness less repeat offenders.” That might be the best option for some.
The Legislature is considering solutions now. Let your representatives know what you want them to do. This is a rare window of opportunity because of the emotional impact of two recent deadly incidents in Seattle.
I heard from readers who recalled moments when drunken-driving fatalities rose to the top of the public agenda in their cities only to fade away as time passed.
There is momentum now for change, but if it dies without meaningful action, more people die will, too.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org