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Driving Under the Influence

by Ned Wicker
(Wisconsin)

Drunk driving is the main contributing factor for most of our country’s traffic fatalities, and repeat Driving Under the Influence (DUI) is an epidemic problem. It’s not a problem with alcoholics, but with anybody who drinks and drives.

Different states use different terminology.

The DUI we are talking about may be called DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), or OMVI (Driving a Motor Vehicle While Intoxicated). They mean essentially the same thing, but some states may chose to make a distinction between DUI and DWI, that being DUI for drives pulled over with a blood alcohol level less than .08, and DWI for those with a blood alcohol level over .08. The standard of .08 may not be applied by law enforcement, as minors have a lower threshold, as do some adults.

Regardless of the terminology or the level of blood alcohol, DUI/DWI/OMVI is a serious social and cultural issue in America today. When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that nearly a million and a half people will be arrested for DUI, it’s easy to see that there is a problem, because how many others are out on the streets and not pulled over? The NHTSA number is probably the tip of the iceberg.

Approximately 37% of traffic fatalities are linked directly to alcohol; that’s nearly 16,000 deaths. Of that 37%, motorcycle drivers were the largest group (27%). Next highest was light trucks (24%), followed by passenger cars (23%). Only 1% of those fatalities involved heavy trucks.

For sake of further clarification on these statistics, consider the following from the NHTSA,

"A motor vehicle crash is considered to be alcohol-related if at least one driver or non-occupant (such as a pedestrian or pedalcyclist) involved in the crash is determined to have had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .01 gram per deciliter (g/dl) or higher.

Thus, any fatality that occurs in an alcohol-related crash is considered an alcohol-related fatality. The term 'alcohol-related' does not indicate that a crash or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol."

Numbers Truly Staggering!

Even if alcohol traffic deaths were not necessarily caused by a drunk driver, the numbers are still staggering, and if you consider what COULD have happened, the possibilities are frightening.

For example, in June of 2008, a man in Wisconsin was arrested after a long, high-speed chase. It was his 10th DUI citation. He had been convicted nine times. And, he had his 14 year-old son in the car with him.

What is clearly apparent from that man’s story is law enforcement did its job by arresting him, but the court system failed to prevent repeat offenses.

The only thing to do with him is incarceration and treatment. The NHTSA reported that those arrested for having a .08 or higher, were eight times more likely to have a prior conviction. In this man’s case, he had nine previous violations. How many times did he drive when he was impaired and he wasn’t caught, probably hundreds of times.

Going back to the NHTSA numbers, over the last 25 years, there has been improvement. According to its data, in 1982 there were 43,945 reported traffic fatalities, of which 26,173 (60%) were alcohol related. Ten years later, in 1992, 39,250 fatalities were reported and 18,290 (47%) involved alcohol. And in 2002, 20 years later, there were 43,055 deaths and 15,524, or 41% were related to alcohol. The number has decreased every year since.

Looking at 2005 numbers, Texas had the most alcohol-related traffic deaths with 1544, or 45%, but of all 50 states and the U.S. territories, the highest percentage was Wisconsin, with 49%. Hawaii was next with 48%, but the raw numbers were much lower. California, the most populated state, had 1509 alcohol-related fatalities, or 36% of the total.

Solutions Not Easy

Coming up with a solution is no easy matter, as the most common response to DUI is incarceration. When should incarceration be the best option? Should it be after two convictions, or three convictions? Every state is different, but jails and prisons would swell if that were the case. In Wisconsin, the incarcerated population would increase nearly three times its present level. The criminal justice system has a huge problem on its hands.

DUI is a societal problem, a cultural problem. We turn to law enforcement and the courts to fix it, but it’s really our problem. People have to change their attitudes about DUI before any significant change is possible.

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