December 29, 2010
NTSB pushes zero tolerance of hard-core drunken drivers
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
Marcia DiNatale of South Lyon, Mich., knew something was wrong that morning when her husband's office called to see why he was late for work. Donald, her husband of 23 years, had two passions: their family and his respiratory therapist job at Oakwood Annapolis Hospital.
DiNatale and her son-in-law drove along her husband's route to work, stopping when they saw what looked like a bad two-vehicle crash. She didn't know that one of those vehicles — a pickup driven by a man whose blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit to drive — had slammed into the back of her husband's car and had come to rest atop his car.
"The police told me he was gone," she says. "I asked, what hospital? Where did he go? They go, 'No, you don't understand. He's gone.' I just went hysterical."
The pickup driver, Robert Bennett, 54, of Novi, Mich., had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19%, police said. He's charged with several offenses, including operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death, operating while intoxicated and operating with a high blood-alcohol level.
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The Oct. 31 crash happened on the first day new penalties for drivers with blood-alcohol levels above 0.17% took effect in Michigan. They're called hard-core drunken drivers, defined as drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15% or higher, or offenders who have been arrested before for drunken driving within the past 10 years.
The USA has undergone a cultural shift on drunken driving since Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in the early 1980s. That's when 50% of those who died on the nation's highways were killed in drunken-driving crashes and having "one for the road" was acceptable behavior. Last year, 10,839 people died in drunken-driving crashes, 32% of all road deaths, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.
Some drivers still haven't gotten the message. "Hard-core drunk drivers are, in many ways, resistant to the countermeasures we've applied since the early '80s," says Jake Nelson, auto club AAA's traffic safety director.
Last year, more than 70% of all drunken-driving crashes involved hard-core offenders, the National Transportation Safety Board says.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman says combating hard-core drunken driving is a top priority for the agency, which is urging states to adopt an 11-point program to reduce it. No state has adopted all 11 components, which include sobriety checkpoints and alternatives to jail.
Among efforts to address hard-core drunken driving:
• Prosecutors across the nation are looking to charge hard-core drunken drivers involved in fatalities with the stiffest charges allowed in their states, says Joanne Michaels, director of the National Traffic Law Center, a non-profit resource center operated by the National District Attorneys Association. "You're seeing harsher and harsher statutes being enacted in various states across the country," she says.
• Several states took steps this year to fight the problem, says Anne Teigen, a transportation analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Missouri passed a law requiring jail time for DUI offenders with blood-alcohol contents of 0.15% and higher. Vermont required hard-core drunken drivers to have vehicles equipped with ignitions that won't start if the driver has been drinking. California authorized courts to order 10-year revocations of driver's licenses for those convicted of drunken driving three or more times.
• Legislators in Texas, which has one of the nation's highest proportions of drunken-driving deaths and is one of 10 states that ban sobriety checkpoints, say they will introduce a bill next year to allow checkpoints. The measure has failed in the past because of resistance from "drunks, people who make money off drunks and civil libertarians," says state Rep. Todd Smith, a Euless Republican. Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming also ban checkpoints, MADD says.
• MADD is pushing Congress on two fronts: to provide $60 million for research and testing of non-intrusive alcohol-sensing technology that would be included in all vehicles to prevent intoxicated drivers from starting them; and to mandate alcohol ignition interlocks for all first-time drunken-driving offenders.
The American Beverage Institute, a MADD critic, says those efforts don't target hard-core drunken drivers. "Rather than focusing on the hard-core population, there has been this move to target moderate social drinking," says Sarah Longwell, managing director of the institute, which represents restaurants. She says states should use roving DUI patrols instead of checkpoints and have tiered penalties for violators.
"We believe that anyone who drives drunk is a potential threat to kill or injure people," says Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD's national president.
In South Lyon, Mich., Marcia DiNatale is outraged that — despite Michigan's new law — the man accused of causing her husband's death is free on $5,000 bond. "We need to do something to take these people off the street," she says. "It's just incredible, what one person can do to many, many people. Not only our family, but I'm sure his family as well."