Different shades of gray
Each month the Sun Advocate presents two views of the same subject as columnists Terry Willis and Tom McCourt see it.
No change needed
We are in the midst of the summer holiday driving season. With that comes the worry about encountering a drunk driver on the road.
It seems like every year after a particularly bad fatal accident that involves a drunk driver our legislators get on the band wagon about lowering that states BAL (Blood Alcohol Level) law. It really seems ironic when the head of the Utah Highway Patrols Alcohol Enforcement Program was involved in a DUI crash while on duty.
Right now as it stands Utah is consistent with all 50 states with a BAL level of impairment of .08. There have been efforts floated around to lower it to .04 or even a zero tolerance level for those with a child in the car. Now if I thought that the change would really save lives I would be for this. But in reality we have laws on the books right now that need to be enforced in a different way, not making new ones.
I have been touched by alcoholism in my life with both family and close friends. Even though we have been fortunate not to have lost a family member to a DUI crash, one of my early memories from back in the Midwest dealt with one. My youth CCD teacher missed one Saturday class. We asked where she was. Her brother had been killed that early morning in a DUI crash. She was at the church hysterically crying when we went in for mass. That memory haunts me to this day.
I think we have some very bizarre liquor laws in this state. Several of them actually make it more likely that someone may over indulge. The one where you cant have a second drink on the table until you finish you first is one example. I have seen people gulp down a drink because someone bought them a second drink and the waitress stood holding it until they finished their first.
Utahs open container laws and the .08 BAL levels are a good thing. In 2004 there were 72 alcohol related traffic fatalities out of 296 vehicle fatalities in Utah. The statistic for alcohol related deaths are not necessarily that the driver was impaired or even under the influence of alcohol. It just means the person who died had at least .01 level of alcohol in their blood. Of those deaths 39 percent had a BAL of .08 and higher.
Of all drivers tested with at least .01 in their system, 85 percent had .08 or higher, 51 percent had .16 or higher. Arrest records show that nationally a level of greater than .18 is the most common level. In Utah the most common level is .14.
Over 30 percent of those pulled over for a DUI are multiple offenders. That means they have been arrested at least one other time for a DUI. In Utah a DUI offense can be dropped from your record after several years so if you lay low for a while you may not get tagged as a repeat offender even if you are.
As it stands right now the usual penalty for a first time offender is 40 hours of community service within nine months. Attend a substance abuse program within 30 days, pay a $500 fine and serve 16 months probation and that is it.
I dont think filling up the jails and prisons is the way to get ourselves out of this problem. If we continue to lower the BAC level it will only clog the courts with people who are not truly impaired behind the wheel. Cell phone use and tired drivers are a worse hazard than a driver with .01 of alcohol in their system. Your NyQuil will more than do that.
We need bigger fines and more money rolled into substance abuse programs. There should be penalties for people who facilitate people who have lost their licenses by registering cars for them or loaning the vehicles when they have no license. Just like drug court, DUI offenses should be rolled over to a long range court monitoring system. Up front these things may cost more money, but in the end, the savings of money and lives will be worth every penny.
We have to focus on the real problem in DUI and that is the truly impaired drivers and repeat offenders. Do not think that lowering the BAL will address either of these issues. Fund the Highway Patrol at a proper level to do their job. Make sure the court system has the tools to do theirs.
And just as important; invest in substance abuse programs to allow people to change. It can happen in any family, any time.
For years Utah and most of the country has had a .08-percent permissible blood-alcohol level for those operating motor vehicles. It has been a practical standard that has served the public reasonably well. However, the standard is only an arbitrary measure and one size never fits all. There are many variables that influence a persons blood-alcohol level.
First is the size of the individual. A 300-hundred pounder can consume more alcohol without getting drunk than a person weighing 100 pounds. Someone with a full stomach will show a lower blood-alcohol reading, all other things being the same, than a person who drinks on an empty stomach. The percentage of alcohol in the drink, the time spent drinking, the time passed since downing that last gulp, and perhaps even a natural tendency toward or away from alcoholism might come into play.
And people who drink often seem to have a higher tolerance for alcohol before becoming noticeably impaired. The fact is, we are all different and have varying levels of tolerance toward alcohol.
So, is the .08 standard fair for everyone? Perhaps not. Why not set a standard that fits everyone regardless of size, familiarity with the product, or motivation for drinking? How about a zero percent legal limit?
Think about it. The goal of setting a legally drunk standard is to stop impaired drivers and protect the public. Its a worthy goal and we need to be serious about it. Unfortunately, what we are doing now isnt working very well.
An official Utah state website lists DUI statistics for the past several years. Overall, in both Utah and the nation, the number of alcohol related deaths has been slowly dropping since the mid-eighties. But for the last two years data is available, 2003 and 2004, the number of alcohol related fatalities on Utah roads increased by more than 50 percent, from 46 in 2003 to 72 in 2004. And in 2003, only 12 percent of those involved in accidents had a blood-alcohol level above .08. In 2004 that number doubled to 24 percent.
What is happening here? More drunks are causing accidents and they are more drunk than they were the year before. Does allowing a legal alcohol limit actually encourage some people to drive after downing a few drinks?
It would appear that our current laws do not deter those who are prone to drink and drive. Why not? Are we too lenient in court? Are we not tough enough with repeat offenders? Is our society too tolerant of this type of criminal behavior?
I dont know about you, but I dont want some drooling fool who is bleary-eyed with booze, whacked out on weed, or mindless on meth, coming at me down the highway at 70-miles per hour in any type of vehicle. Weve got to get these people off the road.
Rehabilitation is fine and it has its place. Compassion for those who struggle with addiction is a virtue and that has its place too. Alcoholism is even considered to be a disease by some. But please, do the alcohol and drug rehab off the highway. I have no tolerance or compassion for anyone who recklessly endangers the lives of others, no matter how sick or needy.
I vote we go with a zero tolerance standard. We have zero tolerance for first-graders who bring squirt guns to school, why not have the same standard for adults who drive while under the influence of booze or drugs? A 4000-pound car is much more deadly than a squirt gun.
It is also true that many drugs have warnings on the label about taking the medication while operating motorized vehicles. We should not allow any wiggle room on that either. If you are taking medications that might impair your ability to drive, stay home or have someone else drive.
And lets come down hard on repeat offenders. I dont think we should put them in jail either. I think we should reconstruct the old world War II Japanese internment camp near Tonapah and keep them all together out there in the rocks and lizards where they cant hurt anyone.