Author’s note from Attorney Howard Iken: The laws regarding drinking and driving are inconsistent and vary from state to state or province to province, leading to a tangled and muddled system. Penalties for first-time offenders range in severity from state to state and repeat offenders face stricter penalties. However, studies show that many of these sanctions are not effective in deterring habitual offenders. Rather than stronger and stronger sanctions, a different approach is needed. Alcohol addiction must be treated as an individual problem, and support groups and tailored solutions should be provided to habitual offenders. More research is needed to gain a more conclusive picture, and adjustments to the legal system may be necessary to reflect this reality.
The state of legislation regarding drinking and driving is something of a tangled mess. In the United States, every individual state has its own laws, some with stricter penalties than others. In other countries, the laws vary by province or even by county. The result is a muddled system with inconsistent sanctions. Does DUI legislation need an overhaul?
First-Time DUI Penalties
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One thing is consistent among states in the USA: the maximum legal blood alcohol concentration for driving is .08 percent. Of course, some states have penalties for lesser levels, including as low as .05 percent. In Queensland Australia, the drunk driving penalties kick in at .09 percent.
All of this is further complicated by inconsistent enforcement. There’s no system to test the blood alcohol content of bar patrons leaving an establishment. Enforcement officers must rely on random chance, recognizable signals in intoxicated drivers, and the occasional sobriety checkpoint for catching offenders. Some will always slip through the cracks.
Penalties for first-time offenders range in severity from state to state as well. Most enforce a limited suspension of the offender’s license, from one to twelve months. Many states have a program in place to allow those convicted of a DUI to drive in a limited capacity, generally to and from work. Some states also require offenders to attend DUI education classes or alcoholism-related programs, depending on their blood alcohol levels at the time of their arrest.
For stricter penalties, many states enforce fines and will install ignition interlocks for offenders with high blood alcohol levels. Interlocks prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver shows a blood alcohol level when testing.
Penalties for Repeat Offenders
Repeat offenders, those who have been convicted of a DUI followed through with the punishments and are caught driving while intoxicated a second — or third, or fourth—time, face stricter penalties. Again, they vary from state to state. In addition to a suspended license, repeat offenders may face vehicle impound, mandatory community service, or jail time.
Do Sanctions Work?
Part of the problem with DUI law and the sanctions involved is the fact that many of them simply do not work. According to a study performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which interviewed 182 repeat offenders:
- Fear of arrest is a deterrent, but a temporary one at best
- Suspended licenses simply do not work. The majority of repeat offenders drove with suspended licenses and simply took care to drive carefully so as not to be detected. This is true even among those surveyed who were fully aware being caught driving on a suspended license would result in jail time
- Men considered their drinking to be a problem, but not their driving. Often, they also believed while intoxicated that they were not impaired and that driving was safe
- Fear of jail was a strong deterrent for many repeat offenders. However, among those who actually spent time in jail, it ceased being a deterrent. The reasons for this change in outlook are unknown
Drunk Driving as an Individual Problem
Drunk driving, legally, is treated as an impersonal problem. Any person breaking the law by driving with a high enough blood alcohol content will face sanctions. The severity of those sanctions varies depending on the recorded blood alcohol level and the arguments of the lawyers involved. Some extenuating circumstances are considered, but no sanction addresses the issues that cause repeated drunk driving behavior.
Habitual offenders will continue to remain habitual offenders regardless of the financial, automotive, or administrative sanctions placed upon them. The threat of jail, fines, and vehicle impound do not deter these people. As the above study mentions, those who alter their behavior have strong social support networks helping them.
Fixing the Legal System
If so many of the sanctions are not effective, what purpose does the current legal system serve? As it stands, first-time offenders with no habitual alcohol abuse are often deterred, but habitual offenders — those most likely to kill themselves or others — simply find ways around the penalties.
Rather than stronger and stronger sanctions, perhaps a different technique must be taken. Support groups may be a first step in the right direction. Alcohol addiction must be treated as an individual problem, with the solution tailored to the individual offender. These people need to find the desire and reason to change themselves. They need to be provided with the support necessary to enable these changes. Throwing them in jail and hoping to scare them straight does not work.
More research must be done to gain a more conclusive picture. No one treatment works for everyone involved, as the circumstances of alcohol abuse are intensely personal. Is it time to adjust the legal system to reflect the reality of the situation?