Mississippi’s Scarlet Letter: Should We Shame Drunk Drivers?

shame drunk drivers with license plateRep. Gary Chism has a thing for drunk drivers. He clearly doesn’t like them. A year ago the Republican from Columbus introduced a bill in the Mississippi House which is known as the “Scarlet Letter Driving Under the Influence Act.” Simply put, its purpose was to shame drunk drivers.

He’s introduced the bill again. If it passes, any motorist convicted of a second DUI would have to have a yellow and red license plate put on his or her vehicle, marking the driver as an offender.

The bill also calls for a $50 fee which would go into the state’s ignition interlock fund. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. The fund supports interlocks for offenders who cannot afford the monthly fees required to maintain a device.

While the bill does use the term “Scarlet Letter” – a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about the shaming of an adulteress in colonial America – the purpose of the plates is not just to shame drunk drivers. The plates would also cause law enforcement officers to take more notice of vehicles with the plates, thus preventing more drunk driving incidents.

Ohio OVI Plate
Ohio OVI Plate

Some states have experimented with DUI plates. Iowa tried it and gave it up, as did Oregon. Georgia has them, but it’s by number, so only police officers know if a particular vehicle bears the stigma. Only Ohio has a genuine “Scarlet Letter” OVI plates.

The smart money says that the Mississippi Scarlet Letter bill won’t go through, at least, not this time. One suspects that a year from now Rep. Chism will make another stab at it. And he is on the right track, trying to discourage drunk driving by making it unfashionable.

But the dismal showing of such shaming legislation across the country suggests that there might be better ways to make roads safer. Mississippi already has an all-offender ignition interlock law. Perhaps working to ensure that all offenders comply with that law would be a better move. Making current measures stronger might be a better strategy than introducing a new one – especially one that doesn’t seem to get a warm reception anywhere it shows up.