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Drunk Driving as a Social Issue

Drunk driving has been a problem in the United States since the introduction of automobiles; however, it did not become an important social issue until the 1980s. At that time the political atmosphere defined crime in terms of personal choice and individual responsibility. Drunk driving was defined as a problem located within individuals. Drunk driving is illegal in every state. It is not only illegal, but unsafe to operate an automobile if you are under the influence of alcohol. When a person drinks, the alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream and various tests have been designed to measure the level of alcohol in a persons blood.

In most states, if a person has a blood alcohol level greater than . 10%, that person is presumed to be too intoxicated to safely operate an automobile. Driving under the influence of alcohol is considered the nations most frequently committed violent crime, and in the 1980s the public supported a wider range of non-criminal countermeasures, as well as stricter legal measures, to govern DUIs. This movement against drunk driving was well reflected in the legislative arena. Between 1981 and 1987 some 934 new laws dealing with drunk driving were passed by state legislatures.

Legal measures focus on deterring drunken drivers by providing stricter laws and punishment. Non-criminal countermeasures are concerned with reform and education and include treatment programs and educating citizens about the dangers of impaired driving. To prevent drunk driving, a combination of stricter laws with harsh punishments and non-criminal countermeasures must be implemented. Legal measures are said to protect citizens through deterrence. Deterrence is defined as discouraging a particular behavior. There are two types of deterrence: individual or specific deterrence, and general deterrence.

Individual or specific deterrence seeks to deter the offender from re-offending. General deterrence seeks to deter the public from criminal behavior through the punishment of offenders. Deterrence is based on the perceived certainty, severity, and celerity of detection and sanction (Vingilis 645). People who support legal measures are calling for harsher laws and tougher punishments.

Some of the proposed measures are: 1. Anyone convicted of drunk driving will be required to pay large fines (starting at $5,000 for a first offense). 2. Anyone convicted of drunk driving will be required to spend at least some time in jail or prison. All convicted drivers will be required to have yellow license plates on their cars so that other people will know who they are and what they have done. 4. Anyone convicted will automatically lose their drivers license for one year. 5. Surprise roadblocks will be set up and police will stop all drivers and test them for drunk driving. 6. All convicted drivers who are alcoholics will be required to have psychological treatment. 7. An ignition interlock system will be installed in convicted drivers vehicles. 8. The possible seizure and sale of a repeat offenders vehicle, and 9. Lowering the blood alcohol level from . 10% to . 08%, since a person can still be drunk at . 08%.

The goal of legal deterrence is to make the offense a less appealing choice. Brandon Applegate refers to this as dominant paradigm (177). A major problem the legal side faces is that policies are often subverted by implementation problems. Another problem is that shortly after the announcement of an increase in apprehension and conviction, offenses decline; however, reductions are not sustained and the rates of offending behavior soon return to the original level.

Present day penalties for first-time violators are $250 to $400 in fines, twelve to forty-eight hours of required participation in an alcohol program, zero to thirty days in jail, six months to one year loss of driving privileges, and insurance surcharges. Two-time violators receive harsher penalties such as $500 to $1,000 in fines, thirty days of community service, forty-eight hours to ninety days in jail (the court may require ninety of those days to be community service work), ten year loss of driving privileges, and insurance surcharges.

There are other penalties also: sixty-day penalties for driving in a reckless manner and exceeding the maximum speed limit by thirty miles an hour on the highway and twenty miles an hour on any other street or road. The penalties inflicted upon impaired drivers have increased since the 1980s and have also targeted minors. The supporters of legal countermeasures have begun the battle against minors drinking and driving. Automobile accidents involving minors are leading cause of death among young people ages fifteen to twenty-four years of age, and new penalties have been placed on minors who use alcohol.

The new law is called zero-tolerance and restricts the blood alcohol level of minors to . 01%. If a minor is convicted of having a blood alcohol level above . 01%, he or she faces severe penalties. If the conviction is a first-time offense, the minor will face a thirty to ninety day license suspension, not more than forty-five days of community service, and/or a maximum fine of $250. Those with at least one prior alcohol conviction face a ninety-day to one-year license suspension, not more than sixty days of community service, and/or a maximum fine of $500.

The laws have been changed and are directed to deter minors from drinking and driving; however, the use of these laws have been changed and are directed to the police officers discretion. Other conditions left to discretion are: 1. The court may decide to charge the minors parents with the court fees. 2. The minor can be charged as an adult, but will spend jail time in a juvenile correctional facility. And, 3. The law enforcement agency has the right to impound the minors vehicle.

The zero tolerance law enforces a blood alcohol level of . %, which equals one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of hard liquor–that is all it will take to put a minor over the legal limit. Alcohol is legal for adults to drink, but it is a depressant drug that can be just as dangerous as drugs. It distorts the visual perception of drivers and interferes with their attention span. Drinking and driving is also seen as a health issue and policies have been devised to save lives and reduce injuries. The main emphasis for non-criminal countermeasures is to alter institutional patterns rather than to catch and punish.

People who encourage countermeasures of the above types feel that criminal justice sanctions should be applies only to those who are culpable. Applegate describes these approaches as a challenging paradigm (177). Proposed interventions are:

1. Make it possible for victims to sue bar owners, whose customers get drunk and cause an accident on the way home. 2. Make it possible for the victims to sue persons who have a party at their house, and whose guests get drunk and cause an accident on the way home. 3. Provide more government funds to set up treatment programs for people with alcohol problems. Require all new cars to have an interlock system, requiring the driver to breathe into a machine that can tell if he or she has been drinking. 5. Require all new cars have driver and passenger air bags in the front seats. 6. Supply government money for television advertisements showing the dangers of driving while intoxicated. 7. Provide government money to anti-drug groups. 8. Require a speed limit of 55 mph on all highways. 9. Have a convicted drivers vehicle seized and impounded for one year, and 10. If a person is convicted of a second offense, have their vehicle seized and sold a public auction.

These countermeasures have two potential problems. The first is that, generally, non-criminal measures do not satisfy the publics outcry for retribution. Second, the countermeasures will probably impose costs, inconvenience and increased prices on those that do not drink and drive. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) are the most influential grassroots groups; they lobby and provide needed help wherever they can.

Grassroots organizations are responsible for many educational and treatment programs, as well as alternatives to driving while intoxicated. Such programs, initiated in 1989, are the Safe Ride Home program, which provides free cab rides to intoxicated people and a designated driver program. Public education campaigns have increased the publics knowledge by aiding in the distribution of information, increasing public awareness of new policies and programs, and encouraging public support for new laws, regulations, and programs. Public education campaigns often appeal to an individuals morality.

However, Vingilis and Vingilis question the utility of appeals to morality because behavior may not change along with knowledge and attitudes. This finding is consistent with social learning theory. Bandura, a social learning theorist, proposes that the anticipated consequences of behaviors impact on what behavior patterns are acquired. However, knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs come to play only to mediate the assessment of consequences (21). Despite years of sanction, drunk driving continues to be a serious social problem. A sizable number of automobile accidents causing injury or death are alcohol related.

To successfully end the impaired driving problem, this nation must combine legal measures with non-criminal countermeasures. It seems almost ridiculous that we have had to go this far to try and put an end to drinking and driving. Many people do not realize how big of a problem drunk driving really is. Is it going to take someone losing a loved one to drunk driving before they realize how unsafe it really is? It would be very tough to put a stop to drinking and driving completely, but by taking more action than ever before, maybe we can help to decrease the number of deaths and accidents.

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