Drunk Driving: Does Anyone’s Punishment Stop Anyone Else?

drunk driving punishment for deterrenceIn Des Moines, Iowa a woman named Deanna Marie Gliem was recently convicted of two counts of vehicular homicide. Driving drunk, she had crashed into a car and killed two men. In a tearful statement before sentencing, she said, “hopefully this will stop somebody else from doing the same thing that I did.”

The “this” that would stop another drunk driver turned out to be a 35 year prison sentence.

The purpose of a drunk driving punishment is at least twofold. There is retribution – punishing a person for wrongdoing. There is also deterrence – making a criminal think twice before committing another crime, and also warning other potential criminals of the consequences.

And in the case of dangerous criminals like repeat drunk drivers, there is an imperative to get the person off the street to make others safe.

But does it work? Will having Deanna Marie Gliem imprisoned for 35 years keep other drunk drivers off the road?

The defense argued that it wouldn’t. According to news reports, Gliem’s attorney said that young people – the most common type of drunk drivers – would not be deterred by the sentence. Neither would problem drinkers. News that a 54-year-old woman would be in prison until she was 89 might be scary, but to a person with serious substance issues, the thought of not drinking is scarier still. Indeed, Gliem herself minimized her own drinking problem, according to court testimony.

If we classify drunk drivers, some fall into the category of people who are able to learn from their mistakes. Many such drivers are thoughtless and foolish, but a DUI arrest, with its shame, fines, jail time and ignition interlock requirement, are enough to shock the offender into becoming a sober driver. This does not minimize the threat they posed to themselves and others on the road, but at least they are able to change their behavior.

Even these one-time drunk drivers  take to the roads despite the punishments that others receive for drunk driving.

However, about a third of those arrested for DWI are repeat offenders, according to NHTSA research. These people can be problem drinkers or people with serious behavioral issues, and are not likely to be deterred by punishments either.

Two strategies exist to deal with chronic repeat DWI offenders. The District Court judge employed the more drastic one – imprisonment – for good reason. Vehicular homicide is the worst possible outcome of impaired driving.

In other cases – where treatment is a possibility, and homicide or injury is not an issue – an ignition interlock is the best option. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. Interlocks and imprisonment are the only two measures that actually prevent a drunk driver from repeating his or her crime.

We want to believe that a 35-year-sentence will deter others from making the bad decision to drink and drive, but history teaches us that drunk drivers are resistant to the measures that would deter others not in the grip of an alcohol abuse problem. Prisons will always be needed for some, but it is expensive and it places hardships the offenders’ families, who might be innocent of wrongdoing. When possible, and ignition interlock is the better choice.