Getting a DUIThis year, the Washington state Legislature took a few baby steps closer to cracking down hard on drivers who get behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Under the new law taking effect in late September, a driver who is pulled over for their second suspected DUI must be arrested and must have an interlock device installed in their vehicle within five days of being formally charged. Some additional state money will be spent helping local authorities bring more cases to trial and levy punishment more quickly to those found guilty.

Beginning next year, a select few cities and counties will begin a pilot program to perform daily alcohol monitoring of two-time DUI offenders.

Though the legislation passed with bipartisan support, the final bill signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee was a shadowy remnant of what had first been introduced by Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley). Padden’s original bill included longer sentences and stricter sentencing guidelines for repeat DUI convictions. Those provisions hit roadblocks in legislative negotiations because of the already extreme fiscal burdens on state and local budgets.

Padden’s original idea of stiffer sentences should not be forgotten, but neither should we view it as the final answer to the DUI problem.

What we need is a way for society to intercept drivers as close to a fateful decision point as possible and we need it to be relatively cheap for taxpayers. Toward that end, there may be another way to use societal pressure to reduce the incidence of impaired driving with limited cost. In a word: Shame.

We should consider requiring every two-time DUI offender to have a special mark on their driver’s license as well as a special license plate for vehicles they may own, a warning to bouncers, bartenders, checkout clerks, employers, and anyone else who might want to know that the person before them has a record of reckless disregard for public safety. On the road, non-impaired drivers would know to use special caution around a car carrying DUI-stamped plates.

There is a precedent for a public safety standard in making this kind of information public that has already established in the requirements for sex offender registration. Can anyone make the argument that repeat drunk driving offenders pose less of a risk than sex offenders? Tally the casualties and it becomes easier to acknowledge that a pressing public safety need may outweigh privacy concerns.

The increased cost associated with preparing the special license cards and plates would be assessed concurrent with sentencing upon conviction. The cost to taxpayers would be as close to zero as anything state government currently does.

In theory, harsher penalties for repeat offenders is may reduce the incidence of impaired driving. In real-life, however, the threat of more severe punishment may be of little use in affecting a seriously impaired driver’s mind. Certainly deterrence can play a role in preventing some crimes, and even some DUIs, but when we over-emphasize accountability after the fact, we are figuratively whistling past the graveyard.

Put simply, it’s unreasonable to believe that cause and effect are still going concerns in the mind of a person who is seriously impaired. In the critical moment when a drunk or stoned driver is turning the ignition key, they have lost contact with the part of their brain that weighs consequences against actions; the driver is in a headspace where societal forces do not reach them.

Currently, the mark of multiple DUI convictions is often known to only a handful of people close to the offender. Requiring them to carry a public mark would provide a powerful way for society to hold them accountable before something terrible happens.


[featured image used under license; credit: karenrl]