Could a harsher stance for those who repeatedly get behind the wheel drunk be a solution?
In 2004, Judith Gubernikoff and her father, George, a fishmonger at the Fulton Fishmarket in the Manhattan borough of New York City, was making the 25-mile pre-dawn drive to open his stall and receive the daily catch. The night was still and quiet as the two drove from their suburban neighborhood into the city, at least until their car was T-boned with so much force that Judith’s heart literally burst.
The driver of the minivan that struck the Gubernikoffs’ vehicle, Neville Wells, was returning home after partying in Manhattan. His blood alcohol level was 0.22 — the equivalent of 15 alcoholic beverages consumed within an hour’s span. He was reportedly speeding through red lights, swerving and hitting side rails.
Wells had two prior driving-under-the-influence arrests (DUIs) and had completed the mandatory drunk driving course required for his license reinstatement only 11 months prior to the accident.
Wells was convicted with the atypical sentence of second-degree murder — which has been applied sparingly in New York state in vehicular homicide cases — and was sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.
Every night, there are those like Wells who get behind the wheel and drive without full control of their vehicles. With blurred vision and irrational, easily-distractible thinking, they slow-creep, speed recklessly, swerve and generally careen homewards. Many never get caught, so, emboldened, they do it again, and again — each time risking both their safety and the public’s with their partial control of more than a half-ton of fast-moving metal and plastic.
In 2012, 1,171,935 arrests were made for driving under the influence of alcohol, per reported statistics from states’ departments of law and justice collected and collated by Statistic Brain. Of these, more than a third came from repeat offenders. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) estimates that, per 2011 statistics, a person is killed in a drunk driving crash every 53 minutes, while someone is injured from drunk driving every 90 seconds. MADD estimates that there are about two million drivers with three or more drunk driving offenses currently on the road.
Recidivism in drunk driving cases proves to be a particularly troublesome situation. The call to keep the roads safe from individuals who have been punished before but choose to drive drunk again proves to be a challenging one to answer.
An example of this includes the case of Arnold Gardner of St. Albans, Vt., who — despite living in a state that permanently cancels a person’s driver’s license after three drunk driving arrests — managed to collect 17 DUIs before being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998. “You’ve proven yourself a real hazard, a real danger to the people of this state,” said his sentencing judge.
Gardner was released from prison three years later.
In Windsor County, Vt., prosecutors sought last month to charge Mark Mownn of Ascutney as a habitual offender for his eleventh DUI in over 30 years, spanning Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. In January, Mownn struck a plea deal to serve four months for his tenth DUI. “We are trying are our best to cut down on prison population in this state, and unfortunately I think the alternatives for habitual DUI offenders aren’t available right now,” said state Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington County).
Alcoholism and personal responsibility
“I was drunk when I was on the city council, I was drunk when I was vice mayor of the city of Santa Fe, and I was always driving. I just never got caught,” said New Mexico Sen. Phil Griego (D-San Jose). “I felt that I was always in control, even though I was out of control.”
The initial logical inference from all of this would be that the states as well as the federal government need to do more to reduce alcoholism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of Americans 18 years of age or older that can be classified as regular drinkers — having at least 12 alcoholic drinks in the last year — is 51.5 percent. The National Institutes of Health recognize that about 18 million Americans — about 5.8 percent of the population — has an alcohol use disorder.
With about 72 percent of the populace driving at least an hour every day, and with more than 60 percent of all drivers prone to frustration or irrational impulses while driving per ABC News polling, this leaves a potential pool of nearly eight million drunk drivers.
It would be reasonable to proactively stop all this drunk driving before it starts. But to properly address this, a thought exercise is in order. Let’s assume that “Scott,” a hypothetical driver, is 22 years old with no criminal restrictions on his record. As such, since in the United States adults 21 and older can purchase and possess alcohol legally and since Scott has no medical or bond restrictions in regard to alcohol consumption, Scott is free to drink. Most importantly, Scott is free to overdrink, as long as Scott accepts the consequences of his actions.
This is known as the right to self, in that one is free to do to his or herself what he or she wishes, as long as he or she accepts the consequences of his or her actions. In society, this is a protected right; unless one puts themselves in a position that their right to self infringes on someone else’s right to self, a person is free to be his or her own agent.
Thus, Scott is free to create the circumstances leading to his intoxication, but his driving once intoxicated is felonious. So addressing the drunk driving situation can take three possible routes: making the driver aware of the consequences of drunk driving before getting behind the wheel, advance the technology to the point that cars themselves can mitigate the danger of drunk driving — such as the use of interlocks — or develop an effective regime for punishing and containing those arrested for drunk driving and disincentivizing would-be offenders.
However, in the case of repeated drunk driving, the considerations are a bit simpler.
Recognizing felonious drinking
Alan Forbes has been arrested six times for DUI since he was 19. He has spent thousands in fines, court costs, vehicle repairs and insurance increases; spent months in jail; has caused his family unmeasurable stress and worry and has repeatedly told himself that each DUI will be the last — that he will do better next time. The first time Forbes was arrested, he was categorized as a “persistent drunk driver” and blew a BAC of 0.26. Forbes recognizes himself as an alcoholic.
What can be done about about individuals like Forbes? The Century Council, a group of distillers committed to responsible drinking, wrote in their position paper “State of Drunk Driving Fatalities in America: 2012,”
Hardcore drunk drivers, those who drive at high BAC’s (0.15 or above), do so repeatedly as demonstrated by having more than one drunk driving arrest, and are highly resistant to changing their behavior despite previous sanctions, treatment or education, continue to account for a disproportionate share of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities each year. In 2011, 70% of drunk driving fatalities, where there is a known alcohol-test result for the driver, involved a high BAC driver — a trend that has remained relatively unchanged for more than a decade. Furthermore, these high BAC drivers were eight times more likely to have a prior driving while intoxicated (DWI) conviction, and 42% of these drivers involved in fatal crashes with a prior DWI conviction in the past three years also had a BAC level of 0.15 or higher at the time of the crash. “
While the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities have decreased by 53 percent from 1982 to 2011, the percentage of fatalities caused by heavy drinkers have skyrocketed, with 40 percent of all drunk-driving fatalities being caused, as of 2011, by drivers with a BAC of .19 or more. Many have argued that the nation’s “one size fits all” approach of treating all DUI arrests similarly with similar punishments may be a key problem. A person arrested with a BAC of .1 does not reflect the same risk to other drivers as someone rating .26, argue many researchers.
A 2010 American Journal of Public Health’s research paper proposed a solution:
Public health policy should encourage the classification of first (and multiple) offenders using a broad, all-inclusive definition of alcohol-related offenses, instead of the narrow ‘criminal’ definitions routinely used by state licensing agencies, state legislators, the judiciary, and public health policy analysts. Any alcohol-impairment driving violation should be permanently recorded on the driver record, serve as a risk factor for future recidivism, and affect sentencing dispositions. State record systems for tracking alcohol-impaired driving should reflect this fact. Once offenders are properly identified, early intervention, treatment, and appropriate sanctions can better target those at increased risk for future alcohol-impaired driving.
In considering the effect of repeat drunk driving, one must look at the criminal as well as the crime. As society would judge more harshly a repeat thief or a repeat murderer, a harsher stance must be taken for those that repeatedly get behind the wheel drunk.
As states and communities take a stronger stance of drunk driving recidivism, an atmosphere that threatens to actively and increasingly punishes repeated DUIs may ultimately be the factor that convinces someone to call a cab instead.