Stricter enforcement of drunk-driving laws

Good evening! I want to open today's speech with a poem.

That poem brings me to tears. But, sadly, the fact remains that... "One person is killed every half-hour due to drunk driving." That person could be the driver, who made the terrible decision to drive while intoxicated. Or that person could be a mother of three who just ran out for a gallon of milk and is now fighting for her life in a hospital bed. Unfortunately, many people are making the poor choice to drink and drive. A quick glance at the website for Mothers Against Drunk Driving displays this frightening statement: "...in 2006, 17,602 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes." And so I stand before you today with a strong desire to prove that although drunk driving often causes results in tremendous tragedies, enforcement of the law is weak and in need of improvement.

Every state has a different system of drunk-driving laws, but this system does not work as well as it should. There are problems at all levels that allow offenders to "slip through the cracks." Many drunk drivers avoid detection and arrest. If arrested, many offenders can avoid a drunk-driving conviction through a plea bargain. If convicted, many offenders avoid appropriate penalties. If sentenced, many offenders ignore the penalties. Many states also have inefficient record systems, which causes problems with identifying repeat offenders. These problems, to name a few, illustrate the need for improvements in the DUI system.

DUI enforcement levels and arrest rates are low. The Traffic Injury Research Foundation estimates that there are 150 million drunk-driving trips in the U.S. every year and 1.4 million arrests." The Foundation's study indicates that "only half of the suspects investigated by police are arrested." The study concludes that "since there are some 2.8 million DUI investigations each year, the chances of a drunk driver being arrested as a result of the investigation are about 1 in 100." I think we would all agree that very few drunk drivers are actually being caught... Indeed, many of you are fellow travelers on the public highways. It certainly must make you uncomfortable to think of drunk drivers sharing those highways with you.

The low DUI arrest rates may be because offenders are familiar with the system and often refuse to cooperate during investigations. The study of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation also reveals that, on average, one-third of drivers pulled over refuse to take a breathalyzer test." The primary reason for this is that in most states, the penalties for refusing to cooperate are much less severe than the penalties for a DUI conviction, especially a repeat one. Essentially, test refusal makes it harder for police to lay a DUI charge and for a prosecutor to convict. Even if the driver is arrested for failing standard field sobriety tests, the single most important piece of evidence is missing. After all, juries want to know how drunk the driver was. Without breathalyzer test results, offenders are more likely to be charged with lesser offenses, receive plea bargains, or even be acquitted. And the incident will never show up on an offender's driver's record as a prior drunk-driving offense.

Plea bargaining a DUI charge down to a lesser charge or lesser penalties can have unfortunate effects too. A plea bargain may wipe the offender's record clean of any DUI arrest or conviction. When an offender receives a lenient sentence, the deterrence value of drunk-driving laws is weakened. This is where the biggest problem lies, considering that offenders have little fear of being stopped, arrested, or convicted - so drinking and driving continues.

Since there is numerous paper work associated with a DUI case, accurate and detailed paperwork is the primary source of evidence. As I noted before, many state record systems are so inefficient that a driver's prior offenses cannot be identified. As a result, even convicted drunk drivers escape meaningful punishment...

According to an article found in the September 1999 edition of The New York Times, the man convicted in the nation's deadliest drunken-driving accident was released from prison after nine and a half years. On May 14, 1988, Larry Mahoney chose to drink and drive. He crashed his pick-up truck head-on into a school bus, killing twenty-seven people.Mahoney had been previously convicted for drinking and driving. After the crash, he was sentenced to sixteen years in prison, but was released early for good behavior.I am certain that the families of those twenty-seven victims feel that justice was not served.I am also certain that had Mahoney been punished more severely after his first conviction, this tragic accident might never have occurred. This story is not uncommon and, sadly, in many cases, drunk drivers responsible for killing people have had numerous DUI convictions.

The man who killed nineteen-year-old Sonja DeVries was a repeat drunk driving offender too. In 2006, Sonja, was on her way home in Denver when a pickup truck slammed into her Toyota at 60 miles per hour. The impact left her brain dead and she eventually died. The driver of the truck, 55-year-old Ramon Romero, was drunk. He had already been arrested for drunk driving six times before. However, through a combination of legal loopholes and leniency, he had only been sentenced to jail once, for only fifteen days. In fact, on the day of the crash, Romero had a valid driver's license. It is a sad commentary on our court system that this man was still on the road, endangering lives. Why should it take SIX times? Each time a DUI is stopped increases the odds that the drunk driver will be in or cause a drunk-driving accident before the next time he or she is stopped. How many people have to be killed before we finally decide to toughen up enforcement of drinking and driving laws? Almost every day a new story illustrates the deadly effects of drinking and driving and, as a society, I fear that society is developing numbness to these familiar tales of lives ended by carelessness...

So now that we have identified where the problems are, I would like to propose solutions to improve the effectiveness of the DUI system... First, states must establish and maintain good record systems. They must be able to identify the offender's prior DUI record to establish the appropriate charge. Secondly, penalties for test refusal should be at least equal to those of a DUI conviction, to remove the benefits for test refusal. Third, plea-bargaining a drunk-driving charge down to a non-alcohol offense must be eradicated. This way if the driver is arrested again, he or she will be charged as a repeat offender.

In addition, appropriately severe penalties must be applied so the offender does not feel that he or she has escaped without any noticeable consequences. Since DUI offenders frequently drive while their licenses are suspended, actions must be taken against the offender's vehicle. Revoking a vehicle's registration and taking away the license plates effectively prevents it from being driven.

State Senator Doria's bill proposal of an alcohol interlock can also be quite effective in controlling drunk driving. The alcohol interlock would require a breathalyzer test before a vehicle can be started. It would be installed on every vehicle owned, leased or operated by a person convicted of drunk driving, be it for the first, second or subsequent offense. If a driver convicted of a drunk-driving offense refuses to have the interlock device installed, he or she would have their license revoked. Furthermore, efforts like DUI checkpoints can help to raise awareness about drunk driving. If our society sees more examples of drunk drivers paying a high price for their reckless actions, perhaps lives can be saved in the future.

Most importantly, we need always to remember that cars are weapons in the hands of a drunk driver... It only takes one drunken turn at the wheel to kill or injure someone. We need to reflect our awareness that consumption of alcohol is not a right to be protected at the cost of innocent lives. Remember again that there is an average of one fatality every thirty minutes. Just think about that. Every thirty minutes someone's life is cut short and families are devastated. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and neighbors, and even grandparents, obviously loved by those dear to them. This crime is repeated thousands of times each year.

As I reflect on what happened to Sonja DeVries, I feel an enormous challenge to live my life in a reflection of her own standards. I encourage you to lobby for stricter enforcement of drunk-driving laws. When society, as a whole, views drunk driving as a negative behavior that cannot be tolerated, the public's behavior will change.And the lives you save may be your family.

Thank you.

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