July 13, 2012
When Are We Going to Take Drunken Driving Seriously?
Do me a favor. Go to your local Patch website and type “DUI” in the search field. Astonishing isn’t it?
But the irony is, because it’s the most often reported story, we don’t pay much attention until someone with a relatively high profile gets nabbed. Somehow, we’ve gotten to the point were the inevitability of drunken driving has become a given.
And I’m just as guilty as everyone else. It took the recent Patch news story on the Batavia girls high school softball coach who resigned as a result of a DUI charge to make me seriously start thinking about this persistent problem.
It brought back one my frequent conversations with former Kane County State’s Attorney John Barsanti, who made a very interesting point about our cultural mindset. He said, while most of us are quick to say things like, “It’s illegal to drink and drive,” it really isn’t.
The truth is, you’re well within your rights to have a few beers at a bar or enjoy a bottle of wine at a restaurant as long as you don’t cross that magic .08 blood alcohol level line.
Barsanti cogently noted, “The real problem is there’s a certain amount of drinking and driving people in this country are willing to tolerate. That’s the difference between the U.S. and Europe.”
So let’s take a closer look at exactly what .08 means.
Using my 180-pound frame as a point of reference, I would have to consume six 12-ounce beers, five 5-ounce glasses of wine, or five mixed drinks in a two-hour period on an empty stomach before I’d hit the legal limit.
Maybe I’m just a lightweight, but if I drank five Bloody Marys in two hours, I’d probably pass out. I’d certainly be in no condition to drive. And frankly, I wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel of a car after imbibing just half of the amounts I described.
And science backs me up.
For example, at the .05 BAC level, drivers start to suffer from lowered alertness as well as minor muscle control loss which includes the ability to quickly focus their eyes. A 20- to 29-year-old with a BAC of .05 is 20 times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash.
Even at the .02 level, most drivers demonstrate a loss of judgment, a decline in visual function, and their multi-tasking capacity heads right out the window.
So Barsanti (now a judge) was dead on. Though we consistently make noise about getting tough on drunk drivers, it’s difficult to do that when our basic premise is you can go ahead and drive impaired—but only up to a point!
So what’s our reaction to all this? Not much!
While the police do their best to get these inebriated folks off the road, because the courts generally proceed as if driving is a right and not a privilege, it takes multiple DUIs before we’ll take someone’s license.
The DuPage and Kane County state’s attorneys are so frustrated by chronic DUI offenders who know how to play the aforementioned system, they’ve resorted to “No Refusal Weekends,” where motorists are randomly stopped at pre-announced check points.
First, any chronic drunken driver worth his margarita salt pays attention to the papers and, armed with the knowledge of exactly where the cops will be, avoids them.
And second, no matter what any judge tells you, it’s patently unconstitutional to pull someone over without probable cause. Despite some politicians best efforts, we’re still innocent until proven guilty.
Then MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) chimes in and, though their hearts are in the right place, their draconian breathlock focus on first-time offenders only makes matters worse when the repeat offender that’s the real problem.
Ironically, Barsanti also told me that, when folks do complain about No Refusal Weekends, they never cite the Constitution. They claim the state’s attorney is impinging up on their “right” to have a few cocktails with dinner.
So how do we change this prevailing mindset? Personally, I believe the key to that shift lies in Barsanti’s brief allusion to European DUI laws.
In Sweden, if you blow a .02 that will get you a DUI. That means just one beer on an empty stomach and you’re facing a fine that amounts to 10 percent of your annual income as well as a one-year license suspension.
If your BAC level is determined to be .10, it’s a minimum of six months in jail at hard labor, even for your first offense. Your license isn’t suspended – it’s permanently revoked. Get caught a second time, and you’re off to the pokey for two years.
And the statutes are very similar throughout the EEU.
Word to the wise! If you ever avail yourself of a European rental car, the local gendarmes specifically target those vehicles because they know most Americans have no clue about these DUI laws.
The bottom line is, though these statutes seem unduly harsh, they work, because the fact that, drinking any amount and driving is illegal, has been indelibly imprinted upon the average European’s mind.
Now, before you say this shift would doom restaurants and bars to extinction, please remember that we’re talking about a culture that allows their children to have a glass of wine with dinner. But as a Swedish friend told me, there’s always a designated driver who doesn’t touch a drop.
“They may have drunks sleeping in the parks in Stockholm,” she said, “but no one drinks and drives in Sweden.”
So with such an obvious solution staring us straight in the face, in light of that insistent Patch DUI coverage, I keep wondering when we’re going to start taking this problem seriously.
I say, let’s follow the European example and make it illegal to drink and drive.
About this column: Jeff Ward is an opinion columnist who writes for Patch and a variety of area newspapers.