Will Scarlet Letter License Plates Solve Mississippi’s DUI Problem?

scarlet-letter-license-platesNo one likes to advertise that they’ve been nabbed and booked for drunk driving. But it happens, and in Mississippi, it appears to be happening too often for State Representative Gary Chism. The legislator wants repeat DUI offenders to bear Scarlet Letter license plates.

Rep. Chism has introduced a bill which would require anyone with a second drunk driving offense to buy a bright yellow license plate specially designed for DUI offenders.

His motivation is clear: everyone will know you made the decision to drink and drive.

A number of states use identifiers of some sort for those convicted of drunk driving offenses. Minnesota uses a special series of numbers on their DUI plates. Ohio’s use color as an ID, much as Mississippi would Oregon requires a special sticker.

Not all of these are easily recognized by other drivers or an offender’s neighbors, but they do let law enforcement officers know if they’re following someone with a history of impaired driving.

The Mississippi proposal, however, is very much meant to shame the driver.  It would also have another use: it would let other drivers know that people are indeed getting arrested for drunk driving, so they’d better watch out themselves. As the saying goes, justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

Not everyone is sold on the idea.  Some are worried that scarlet letter license plates might lead to persecution by police officers.  Others worry that so-called “whiskey plates: are unfair public humiliation. The ACLU calls it “over-criminalization”

The question to ask is, why drunk driving? Why not armed robbery, auto theft, driving without insurance or discharging a firearm within city limits?

The answer is, DUI is a stubborn crime – recidivism is high. Lawmakers are at their wit’s end trying to bring down the numbers of repeat offenders.

And that is why ignition interlocks were invented. Of all the measures designed to fight drunk driving, only ignition interlocks – apart from incarceration, which is expensive and not appropriate for first offenders – actually prevent recidivism. By preventing the vehicle from starting if the driver has alcohol on his or her breath, the device keeps the offender and everyone else on the road safe.

We’re not sure that shaming offenders is the way to go. Many drunk drivers need help, and counseling and treatment – along with ignition interlocks – have been shown to work. Beefing up and better enforcing of the interlock program would make more sense.

As for the Scarlet Letter – well, the book didn’t have a happy ending, did it?