Seeking Delicate Balance

Up to 70% of all traffic fatalities involve alcohol. Because most alcohol-related traffic deaths occur between midnight and 3 a.m., it's apparent that the nightlife segments of American motorists are the most treacherous. The problem is dependence on alcohol for a good time and the automobile for transportation. Because neither of those dependencies will likely go away soon, solutions must be sought

Up to 70% of all traffic fatalities involve alcohol. Because most alcohol-related traffic deaths occur between midnight and 3 a.m., it's apparent that the nightlife segments of American motorists are the most treacherous.

The problem is dependence on alcohol for a good time and the automobile for transportation.

Because neither of those dependencies will likely go away soon, solutions must be sought elsewhere.

Some courts are reluctant to sideline first-offense drunken drivers if no fatalities are involved, although many first timers become repeaters with deadly consequences. One apparent reason for this leniency is that suspending a driver's license would deprive the unfortunate motorists of their livelihoods. Many judges are disinclined to take away a breadwinner's license to drive if a job is at stake.

With some success, there have been several attempts by courts to institute alcohol rehabilitation programs. But they fall prey to defense attorneys' legal maneuvers and the vagaries of our ponderous and glutted court system.

It's a paradox that this most serious offense, often by otherwise law-abiding citizens, merits a punishment that is apparently too much for its practical application.

Traffic authorities are keenly aware that many drunken drivers do their killing at night. Many lives would be saved by suspending the right to drive at that time. Driving to earn a living during daylight hours (when relatively few alcohol-related offenses occur) would be retained.

Nightime driving for recreational and social purposes would be eliminated. The person who wishes to continue drinking coincidental with transportation should plan on friends or family acting as chauffeur during this period.

A license suspension would sift out unfortunate first-time offenders (who learned their lesson) from problem drinkers and drivers (who didn't).

Skeptics argue the habitual drinkers will not conform and will continue to drive during the restricted period. If so, it will follow that these potential murderers lose their right to operate a vehicle forever and even suffer incarceration.

In Scandinavian countries, drunken driving carries a mandatory year jail term. That's dramatically reduced alcohol-related traffic offenses.

New York State has a program in particular that's enjoyed success. Coupled with alcohol rehabilitation, the driver is granted a conditional license that permits driving to and from work. The offender is permitted three hours on weekends for church or other sober daylight activities.

About 70% of convicted drunken drivers have elected to participate (at their own expense) in that rehabilitation program. Results are encouraging. However, it's still a part of the state's legal system, and there've been significant bottlenecks caused by attorneys who've fashioned a lucrative career of defending drunken drivers.

Many experts suggest establishing a registry of motor vehicles to expedite the evaluation of alcohol-related driving offenses. Police say if they're expected to patrol our highways adequately, a system must be established that better sustains and supports their work than has been demonstrated by our judiciary.

This commission would initially remove problem drivers from the roadways during the risky night hours, Restricted licenses would allow daytime driving. Such restrictions may potentially save lives.

It is overdue that the automobile industry partner with law-enforcement organizations to treat the problem seriously and think of solutions creatively.

Either we resign ourselves to accept the killing and maiming of thousands of Americans each year as the price we are willing to pay for drinking and driving, or we effect a no-nonsense, but workable program to address the problem.

Nat Shulman is a retired Massachusetts dealer now living in Hawaii.

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