Monday, August 16, 2010

An outsider's perspective on drunk driving

Michael Landauer, assistant editorial page editor for the Dallas Morning News, makes some very astute observations in his most recent blog posting "Mixed feelings on how to handle DWI."

Like most folks, he took MADD's position:
Before I ever knew anyone who had a DWI, I more or less took the MADD line, that severe punishment was best. As a copy editor, I was taught that you do not call DWI crashes "accidents." This is a MADD thing. They say there is nothing accidental about it, and calling it an accident implies that no one is to blame, but, of course, someone was reckless. 
That passage shows just how prosecutors and advocacy groups can use language to influence jurors (or, as in MADD's case, potential jurors). A complaining witness is a "victim." An accident is a "crash." These words are used to change the tone of the debate.

But then he met someone who was charged with (what we call in Texas) intoxication manslaughter and his attitude began to change.
Should my friend go to prison? That was a question she struggled with. As her lawyers worked like heck to keep her out of prison, she wasn't so sure she didn't belong there. In some ways, I think, she wanted to be punished. But when a driver came forward and stated that the 18-wheeler being passed sped up in an effort to mess with the passing car, the case kinda fell apart. It seemed that a lot of people on the road that day did some stupid things that led to that crash.
Now I don't think Mr. Landauer is downplaying the loss of life in the accident and I don't think he's condoning his friend's behavior. He is correct, however, in pointing out that just because one motorist was, or might have been intoxicated, it doesn't mean that he or she was responsible for the accident.

Mr. Landauer's solution isn't to do away with the DWI laws in Texas, but he does advocate that we rethink how DWI's are handled.
I think there are countless ways we can be reckless on the road, but I am leery of backing off the DWI laws. For one thing, many aspects of the current law have had a great social impact. It is so taboo now to drink and drive, and that would not be the case if it were not for the fact that a DWI can follow you around for years. If allowing deferred adjudication would make that more possible, I'm OK with that. But I also think we need to mandate more use of breathalyzer technology for those on probation. And more counseling options, too. Not everyone is an alcoholic who gets caught DWI, but certainly they need to step back and consider the recklessness of their behavior. There are several ways to get at this issue that don't involve throwing people in jail.
I may not agree with everything Mr. Landauer proposes, but I do agree with him that we don't need to loosen up the DWI laws in Texas. I support drunk driving laws. I have a wife and two little girls and I worry about them being out on the road. I think the police should be more judicious in how they apply the law and I believe prosecutors need to realize that a "one size fits all" solution is no solution at all.

I think it's time for the legislature to sit down and discuss the DWI laws in Texas in a rational manner without the election year bombast. For the most part, motorists who are arrested for suspicion of DWI, regardless of how their case is resolved, don't pick up another DWI. The law needs to put the seriousness of the crime into proper perspective and take away the scarlet D that is now pinned on the lapels of motorists who have been convicted.

We need DWI laws. We need sensible DWI laws.

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