Legislature on right road with drunken-driving laws

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Without sounding preachy, it is important to acknowledge and endorse attempts in the Alaska Legislature to toughen the state's drunken driving laws.

Barely a generation ago, drinking and driving bore the imprimatur of social acceptance - as long as no one got hurt. The problem was, people kept getting hurt. With more people drinking and more people driving as the U.S. population surged after World War II, more were killed or injured because of those who followed socially acceptable practices with little consideration of the consequences.

How do we know that drunken driving was socially acceptable?

By the mild penalties imposed on offenders in general and repeat offenders in particular.

Far too often and for far too long, drunken driving was excused as a boys-will-be-boys exercise. Asking a man to give up his car keys even when he was falling-down drunk was considered an affront to his masculinity. If fewer women were drinking and driving in the years immediately after World War II, the feminist movement and increasing numbers of women in the workforce helped eliminate gender distinctions about alcohol consumption.

Everybody played; everybody lost.

Still, judges, jurors, prosecutors and defendants played a wink-wink game of pretending to impose penalties on people who pretended to have learned a lesson.

Inevitably, survivor-victims and the relatives and friends of those who did not survive demanded an end to wink-wink justice.

Like smoking or smoking in public places, getting drunk and driving drunk have had society's full attention for a while.

Tolerance has declined, but a segment of the Legislature believes there is more to be done in the name of involuntary social responsibility.

We favor the move to make it more difficult for offenders to become repeat offenders. Removing some of the spontaneous opportunities whereby offenders can purchase alcohol is a start. It is right that they should be required to produce distinctive identification that tips off a retail clerk to a drunken driving history.

Those who purchase alcohol for someone prohibited from buying it rightfully should be doing so at some legal risk to themselves.

And, just as citizens may lose driving, hunting, fishing and voting privileges based on criminal behavior, it is not unreasonable to prohibit convicted drunk drivers from consuming alcohol for a specified period of time. Tough to enforce, but not unreasonable.

Lowering the legal threshold for intoxication from 0.10 blood-alcohol content to 0.08 is a must. To refuse is stubborn folly that will cost Alaska a bushel of federal highway dollars.

Raising the cost of drinking has been proposed and also must be considered.

Consideration and dollars also should be given for alcohol-related education.

Alcohol remains a favorite mood modifier. It still slows reflexes. As with so much else in life, people don't always know when to quit.

Teens need to have access to information about alcohol's physical effects. The information needs to be presented in an unbiased manner - without sounding preachy, as we said from the top.

There is a need as well for educating those who may have grown up in an alcohol culture, who are offenders and who are likely to become repeat offenders. Believe it or not, they may never have heard the facts.

The road to social responsibility is long. We should do what we can to ensure the safest journey possible.

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