Your Move, Governor Brown: Sign SB 1046 and Make California Proud

Governor should sign California ignition interlock lawIt’s been a long journey to this day. Back in 2010 California, concerned about its drunk driving collision rate, began testing out a device called an ignition interlock. The instrument, a breathalyzer-like device that prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking, had seen success in other states. Rather than jump in with its vast population, California started a pilot program in four counties to ask the question: what would happen if a California ignition interlock law made the devices mandatory for all DUI offenses, including first offenses?

Data from the four counties – Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tulare counties – indicates that the devices work.  In a recent report on interlocks, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) estimated that the devices prevented some 158,000 incidences of drunk driving in California.

Senate Bill 1046, which has been debated and passed by both houses, would extend the all-offender policy to the entire state. That means that anyone convicted of drunk driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 or more would be required to have the devices in their vehicle for a defined period.

The bill is now on Governor Brown’s desk. He has until the end of September to sign it. Here’s why he should:

  • License suspensions don’t work. The reason ignition interlocks were invented is because the standard measure for preventing repeat DUIs – license suspension – doesn’t do the job.  Offenders continue to drive without a license, and that includes drunk drivers.
  • Unlicensed drivers are more dangerous. A California study found that unlicensed drivers were nearly three times more likely to cause a fatal crash relative to their exposure. Hit-and-run crashes are more likely as well, since a suspended driver involved in a crash is going to be tempted to flee.
  • Ignition interlocks do save lives. The rate of alcohol-related road fatalities drops when all-offender interlock policies are adopted.

SB 1046 is widely supported by those who have made a career out of road safety: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, NTSB, the Safety Council, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, and a host of Police organizations and public health agencies.  The facts are clear, and California, the state most identified with the automobile, should be the next one to protect its drivers from this preventable and lethal crime.

So, Governor Brown, we invite you to sign SB 1046.

It’s right there on your desk.

Tennessee Lawmakers’ Bad DUI Idea Might Cost State $60 Million

Tennessee underage drinking law could blow cashSomeone in Tennessee thought they could fiddle with the state’s underage drinking and driving laws, forgetting that some of those laws are tied to federal funding. Now the state is scrambling to fix things before they take a $60 million haircut.

According to federal guidelines, drivers under 21 may not operate their vehicles if their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .02 or above.  This rule, like others, is tied to a lot of federal highway funding.

What Tennessee did was pass a law raising that underage DUI limit to .08 – the same as adults. At the same time, they increased the penalties for underage DUI. The idea was presumably that the state would treat people between 18 and 21 like adults if they acted like adults.

There are at least 3 problems with this approach

  1. 18-year-olds are not adults
  2. 18-year-olds do not act like adults
  3. The Feds know the above and passed its guidelines because of that

Zero Tolerance for Underage Drinking – A Great Idea

Ultimately, it’s hard to fathom what was in legislators’ minds. The NIH tells us that alcohol is involved in 37% of all traffic deaths among persons aged 16 to 20. When states started mandating zero tolerance for underage drivers, the number of traffic deaths in that age group decreased markedly – from over 5000 in 1982 to less than 2000 in 2008.

The idea of the change in the state underage drinking and driving law was to bring more force down on underage drinkers. However, they felt that necessitated upping the allowable BAC limit. No one seems to have known about the federal guidelines, or the reason behind them: that teens are less secure drivers, more prone to risk and bad judgment on their own, without alcohol. Adding any alcohol to the mix increases the danger of a collision. The .02 limit is there for that reason. In fact, some countries, Canada included, stipulate zero as the allowable limit for drivers 21 or under.

Tennessee is right to combat drunk driving, but the answer is not to play around with laws that work. Instead, the state should require ignition interlocks (car breathalyzers) for all DUI offenses, and institute administrative license suspension (ALS) for those arrested for DUI.

In other words, there’s lots to fix without fixing what ain’t broke.

Amish Teen Gets DUI While Driving – You Guessed It – a Buggy.

drunk driving in buggy illegalThe Amish are known for many things, but drinking is not one of them. And drunk driving?  It’s hard to imagine, but it just happened in Pennsylvania.

The Amish are a strict religious sect whose members refuse to adopt the modern conveniences such as electricity, cars and television. Such devices, they believe, would weaken the traditions which form the bonds that unite the community. And they’re probably right.

Alcohol, though, is not considered a modern convenience. And while it is not generally forbidden, most Amish communities use it sparingly.

So how does all that add up to a drunk driving arrest? We’ll introduce one more element: teenagers. An 18-year old in a horse and buggy was stopped by police because two of his passengers chose to ride on the roof.   The passengers, as it turned out, had also been drinking. All were 20 or under.

As we’ve noted before, you can get a DUI on a riding mower, a Segway, a snowmobile, or a golf cart. A horse and buggy is also a dangerous enough vehicle to warrant DUI charges. The reason is that alcohol impairs the judgement that is needed to operate any heavy vehicle safely. So the buggy DUI makes perfect sense.

Thanks to the Amish sense of community such incidents are rare. But it’s good to bear in mind that if you’re driving anything with wheels or hooves, don’t drink.

Probation for 6th Colorado DUI: A Slap in Victims’ Faces

repeat drunk drivers need real punishmentWe take for granted that certain people who break the same law again and again will be punished more severely when they are caught.  Sometimes punishments aren’t what we expect, but judges have a more complex set of factors to consider. Still, every once in a while, a case comes along that seems way off the mark.

Doyle Carmack was arrested in March for DUI. His blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was found to be .235, nearly three times the legal limit for intoxication and a level at which safe driving is utterly impossible.  Carmack had three prior misdemeanor DUI convictions, and two felony DUI convictions, the latter of which got him three years in prison.

The fate of this six-time loser might surprise you. An Arapahoe judge gave Carmack 5 years’ probation and 75 hours of community service.

This might be a good time to review the purposes of a prison sentence:

  • Deterring both the criminal and others from committing the same crime, and
  • Delivering punishment for the sake of the crime committed – society’s retribution for having broken the law

It’s clear from the nature of the offender’s history that this non-sentence does neither. And that’s bad for two reasons:

  • Drunk driving recidivism is a serious problem. It’s bound up in alcohol abuse and dependency problems, and it rarely goes away on its own. Determined drunk drivers need serious treatment and consequences in order to pull their lives back together.
  • Such a light sentence sends the message that repeat drunk drivers have not committed a serious crime. That message is a slap in the face to the many who have lost loved ones to drunk driving.

While Colorado did institute a felony DUI law for repeat offenders recently, it does not mandate prison time.  There are only two measures that protect society from repeat drunk drivers: prison and ignition interlocks (devices which prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking).  Of the two, prison is the more costly to everyone concerned, but sometimes it is warranted.

The most important change that must be made is for Colorado judges and lawmakers to comprehend how serious impaired driving is, and to create laws – and levy punishments – that address repeat drunk drivers.

Anything less is a slap in the face to those who have suffered too much already.

Emojis to Fight Drunk Driving – South Carolina’s Newest Weapon

drunk-driving-emoji-campaignWhen you hear a message too many times – whether it’s “clean your room” or “read the instructions first,” it gets ignored. That’s just how people are. So when the message is an important one – don’t drink and drive – the South Carolina Department of Public Safety wants to make sure that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

Drivers in the 18 – 34 category are most at risk for driving drunk. So how do you reach them, short of texting each one individually?

Sergeant Bob Beres of the South Carolina Highway Patrol, known on social media as Trooper Bob, has one solution: he’s using the graphic language of emojis to communicate the dangers of drunk driving.  And it’s been so successful that he’s taking the emojis to non-digital realms.

drunk-driving-gas-pump-handleRecently the emoji campaign has made it onto a series of 170 billboards across South Carolina. It will also find its way onto high school sporting event tickets and even gasoline pumps.

And why not? These days emojis do the work of words in tweets, texts and emails. The logic is that the extra second of time it takes to decipher the images will help the message sink in better.

Trooper Bob has a good lesson for everyone – use every channel of communication, and every language of communication as well, if the message is an important one.

Here’s hoping the people of South Carolina get the picture.

Drunk Mother Lets Drunk 13-Year-Old Drive. What Was She Thinking?

underage-designated-driverRecently a car was pulled over for erratic driving in Santa Fe. But this was not the run-of-the-mill traffic arrest. As it turned out, the driver – a designated driver, no less – was 13 years old.

The mother, who was also intoxicated, had pressed her 13-year-old son into service because apparently she didn’t feel sober enough to drive. This was a problem for obvious reasons:

  • The son did not know how to drive
  • The son had no driver’s license
  • The son was himself drunk

Once again, alcohol proves that it is better at causing people to make bad decisions than just about anything else.

One might ask if a minor with no license can be charged with DWI. The answer is yes. In fact, the boy is facing aggravated DWI charges for refusing a sobriety test, as well as driving without a license and not staying within a lane. So an unlicensed driver can still be charged with the same driving offenses as a licensed one.

How the prosecution will proceed is, of course, a different matter, given that the defendant is a minor. But there is no doubt that being underage does not protect one from New Mexico’s DWI laws.

Which makes sense. Drunk driving laws exist for the protection of all citizens, and an underage, drunk driver is a danger to everyone on the road.

Even if the son had a learner’s permit or conditional license in this situation, a DWI could still the result, because a supervising driver must be sober.

While it was understandable that the mother did not want to drive while impaired, turning over the car to a drunk teenager was an astonishingly bad judgement call. A good reminder that your designated driver must be of age, licensed and sober to be worthy of the name.

Retired Wisconsin Police Car Still Grabbing Drunk Drivers

Marinette-Police-Car-WarnsDrunk-DriversMost Wisconsin police officers grab a lot of drunk drivers in the course of their careers.  Once they retire, they leave the arrests to younger troopers. But one retired police car in Marinette, Wisconsin is still fighting the good fight against those who drive under the influence.

The car won’t be pulling motorists over and scanning their breath. But it will be spreading the anti-DUI message at events.

A retired Marinette Police squad car was painted so that it’s half cop car, half taxi. The idea is that if you’ve been drinking, you have a choice – ride home in a taxi, or you’ll be riding to jail in a police car. Getting behind the wheel while drunk is “rolling the dice.”

The vehicle will be parked at festivals and special events to act as a reminder that a $20 taxi ride is a better idea than a $10,000 DUI charge.

The vehicle is equipped with a screen to play videos of people whose lives have been affected by the tremendous burden that a drunk driving charge places on anyone who has been caught driving under the influence.

Wisconsin has a long way to go in its fight to end drunk driving. It remains the only state that does not consider a first DUI offense with a BAC over .08 to be a crime. It does not require ignition interlocks for all drunk driving offenses, despite evidence that the devices save lives. And it doesn’t require those who do have ignition interlocks to drive only vehicles with the device.

Perhaps Marinette’s efforts to spread the message will eventually filter to the state’s legislators, who have a lot of work to do if they want safer roads in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the police – and at least one police car – will keep plugging away to take – or warn – drunk drivers off the road.

The Difference Between a Felony and Misdemeanor DUI

felony-and-misdemeanor-dui-have-different-penalties If you’re arrested for driving under the influence, you could be facing three different types of charges: an infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony. The consequences for the DUI will vary significantly depending on which type of offense you’re charged with.

Infraction

An infraction is an offense, but it is the least serious type of offense. Infractions will not give you a criminal record, and usually all that is necessary to set things right is to pay a fine.

Impaired driving can be an infraction, though more often it is not.  In Wisconsin a first OWI is a civil infraction, provided the blood alcohol level is below .15 and there are no other aggravating factors.

You are not guaranteed a right to trial for an infraction, and in fact they are usually resolved quickly at a court appearance. In some states an attorney can have charges reduced via plea bargain from misdemeanor to infraction.

Misdemeanor

The majority of drunk driving arrests involve misdemeanor charges, which are more serious than infractions. A misdemeanor DUI is more likely to result in a jail term of up to one year and a punitive fine. You have the right to a trial if you are facing misdemeanor charges.

Most impaired driving charges involving speeding, reckless driving, and driving without a license are misdemeanors, though

A misdemeanor conviction can also result in other restrictions, such as loss of professional licenses, difficulty at job interviews, and denial of a firearm permit. Ignition interlocks, or car breathalyzers, are also required in many misdemeanor DUI cases.

Felony

The most serious crimes involve felony charges. In 46 states a too-often-repeated DUI is a felony – usually the third or fourth one. Injuring or killing someone while driving drunk is almost always a felony.  Some states raise charge to a felony if you have a child under a certain age in the vehicle while driving drunk.

Felony convictions are life-altering in the extreme. Most professional licenses will be lost, as will voting rights. Adopting a child becomes impossible, and access to public housing and benefits might be lost.

Infraction, misdemeanor and felony are three different ways the courts can deal with the decision to drink and drive. They exist so that even if a given instance of drunk driving does not result in harm, we can rest assured that there will still be consequences for the impaired driver to deal with.

After 30 Years of Drunk Driving, He Finally Kills. License Revocation? Seriously?

Charles Cahill proves license revocation does not work

Sumpter Township Police Department

Twelve OUI convictions. 24 license revocations, and 17 suspensions. Seven crashes. Charles Cahill Jr. was a time bomb that finally went off. Not long ago the 49-year old man, who had 30 years of drunk driving experience, killed a young girl in Sumpter Township, Michigan. Speeding, with a blood alcohol level almost three times the legal limit, Cahill slammed into a minivan, killing 12-year-old Victoria Mack.

Apart from the driver’s sheer criminality and disregard for human life, this case is a dramatic example of the reason for this blog’s very existence: license suspensions don’t work.

Yet on news sites, in the comment section, you’ll read statements like “Take away his license for life!”

We don’t – and shouldn’t – take suggestions made in comments sections too seriously. But the number of people calling for suspensions and revocations when reading about drunk driving arrests or crashes shows that people still think that taking away someone’s license is a good way to combat impaired driving.

It isn’t.

license-revocation-problemTrue, some people are shocked and shamed enough at having their license lifted that they obey the order not to drive, and to reconsider drinking and driving.

But that’s only a quarter to a half of drivers who are suspended. The rest continue to drive – and to drink and drive.

Few have a record as bad as Cahill’s, but research by the AAA foundation shows that one out of five fatal crashes involves an unlicensed driver. The research employs data from FARS, NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. A quarter of those drivers had been suspended three or more times, and about five percent had been suspended 10 or more times.

Ignition Interlocks – A Better Alternative to License Revocation

Since certain offenders are likely to keep repeating their drunk driving, coming ever close to scenes like the mayhem in Sumpter Township, there is a place for imprisonment. Some drunk drivers are just too dangerous to be out on the roads.

But for most offenders, ignition interlocks are the best option. By preventing a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking, the devices keep drunk drivers off the roads while allowing those who want help to keep their job, obtain counseling and treatment, and get their lives back together.

Michigan’s sobriety courts have been proven effective in preventing drunk driving recidivism, by combining ignition interlocks and treatment with strict supervision. The courts have a success rate in excess of 90 percent. Sobriety court personnel ensure that the offender complies with the order to install an ignition interlock, and then supervise the offenders’ treatment.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked in this case. But the important lesson is that license revocation should never be considered a safe option to keep a drunk driver in line.

DUI Suspect Gives Cop the World’s Worst Answer

bad-answer-while-drunk-drivingIf you’re out drunk driving, there’s probably no good answer to the question, “How much have you had to drink?” But a motorist in Fayetteville, Arkansas managed to find the worst possible one.

Police have a variety of ways to spot drunk driving, and on this night the officer saw something that tripped alarms: a car driving without headlights. The driver proceeded to more or less go through the catalog of indicators, turning right on a left signal and then nearly hitting the median.

When the car pulled into a lot the officer asked, “How much have you had to drink?”

“Not enough,” was the answer.

That’s plenty of cause for a breathalyzer (as was the smell of alcohol), which turned up a reading of .146 percent. Busted. The legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit nationwide is .08.

Field Sobriety Test to detect drunk driving

It is very hard not to self-incriminate when you are stopped justifiably for drunk driving. Impairment is usually apparent to everyone. Certainly bloodshot eyes and slurred speech are giveaways to anyone. Police are attuned to the changes that alcohol makes in one’s behavior. For instance, it reduces inhibitions, so a drunk driver might start being over-chatty (“you police do such a great job…”), or he or she might talk too loudly or softly. Often DUI suspects repeat things or speak too slowly. All of those indicators give an officer enough cause to request a breath test.

After the breathalyzer, a police officer will probably do the field sobriety test, a set of exercises designed to test the coordination and concentration. They are not considered conclusive, but give the officer cause to bring you down to the station for an evidentiary-quality breath or blood test.

Of course, if you give an answer like the Fayetteville driver did, it’s pretty well over.

And by the way, he was wrong. Anything to drink before driving is too much.