Drunken Driving Penalties: Too Soft? More than a million drunken driving arrests are made each year in the United States. After a string of recent high-profile incidents, some say the courts should be tougher on people who drive under the influence.
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Drunken Driving Penalties: Too Soft?

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Drunken Driving Penalties: Too Soft?

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Drunken Driving Penalties: Too Soft?

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later: hurricanes, floods, and now, a shortage of health providers - is mental health New Orleans' next crisis?

But first, we're going to continue the conversation now about drunk driving. Paris Hilton's arrest made headlines and eventually landed her back in jail. But hers was just one of more than a million drunk driving arrests in the U.S. every year. We wanted to know what's behind that figure. Is it a sign that the system is working to discourage drunk driving, or that it's not working?

Joining us now to talk about this is Chuck Hurley. He's the CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, also known as MADD. And we're also joined by Maryland state delegate Jolene Ivy. She is also a regular contributor to our parenting discussion group, The Mocha Moms, and she's the mother of five boys. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

State Delegate JOLENE IVY (Democrat, Maryland): Thanks so much, Michel.

Mr. CHUCK HURLEY (CEO, Mothers Against Drunk Driving): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Chuck, you've been working in traffic safety for more than two decades. How have the drunk driving laws changed over the years if you've been working in this field?

Mr. HURLEY: Well, before 1980, when MADD was formed, drunk driving was a joke -literally a joke in late night television. In 27 years, MADD and its supporters have been able to make drunk driving socially unacceptable but tolerated. We arrest about 1.4 million people a year in the United States, about a thousand of those are convicted. About 700,000 are first-time offenders, and 500,000 continue to drink and drive even though their license is suspended.

MARTIN: How do you know that?

Mr. HURLEY: From the FBI numbers from the state numbers at the U.S. Department of Transportation. So it has worked - I mean, 44 percent reduction since 1980, pretty remarkable progress.

MARTIN: In reduction in what?

Mr. HURLEY: In fatalities.

MARTIN: Fatalities.

Mr. HURLEY: And yet, everything in the data indicates that the people who are going to respond to deterrents of license revocation up through third offense felony have probably had done so. That's why MADD is very committed to enforcement plus technology, that everybody who is arrested for drunk driving first time - not first time caught, not first time offense - deserves an interlock. That would be Parish Hilton, Mel Gibson (unintelligible) arrest.

MARTIN: An interlock is what?

Mr. HURLEY: Interlock is a breath-testing device which is like an electronic probation officer in the front seat. It does not allow a person to continue to drink and drive during probation. You have to blow into the device, and if it detects alcohol, the car won't start.

MARTIN: It seems pretty easy to evade, especially if you have more than one car, or if you have a credit card and you can go and rent one.

Mr. HURLEY: It probably used to be, but the technology is much better and the results are in. New Mexico, first state to do that, as the nation has stood still in the numbers - actually, just recently the numbers went up. New Mexico experienced a 28 percent decline in the last three years in alcohol-related fatal crashes, and year to date a 20 percent decline in fatalities. A number of states have already moved. Arizona just passed Illinois on the governor's desk. So we are very committed to that strategy, and people can go to our Web site.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm going to bring Jolene in just a moment. But you heard our earlier discussion about the role of incarceration in deterring drunk driving. And you said that MADD is a strong supporter of enforcement. I know that you were very critical in raising the drinking age and also encouraging law enforcement to take this crime more seriously. But what role does incarceration play in this? Do you think that the threat of incarceration should come in sooner? Or do you think that - like the other people we talked to earlier, our previous guests - that, you know, actually there are better options that actually lead to more public safety dealing with the drinking as opposed to the driving.

Mr. HURLEY: Well, we go with the data, and jail is very appropriate for severe offenses, particularly when it involves crashes and fatalities. But we do believe that first-time offenders should get a license revocation plus interlock. They get to keep their job. They get to keep their family. They just don't get to keep the habit of drinking and driving.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Your oldest is what, 17 or 18?

State Delegate IVY: Yeah, 17 and he has his learner's. He's just - within the next week - about to go for his permit, and it's really stressful for us. I mean, we're excited for him that he's embarking on this great freedom and we're very nervous about it. And we worry for him. It's two things. One, he'll be out there driving with very little experience still, even though he's had his learner's for quite a while. But there's other people out there who may have been drinking, and he might not be able to avoid them and end up in a crash. And, of course, even though we have great faith in our son in not drinking -he's too young to drink. You know, you have to be 21. But you always worry that with teenagers, they're going to do something dumb and that dumb thing that they do once could have, well, could end their lives or someone else's.

MARTIN: You're a state delegate in addition to being a mom of - a wife and a mom of five. And I wanted to ask whether - was is the posture of the state legislature this year? Is drunk drinking still a top-of-the-mind issue?

State Delegate IVY: It wasn't so much this year. We had so many other things competing for our attention. But I do know that Bill Bronrott, who's a delegate from Montgomery County, has been very instrumental - a big leader in increasing penalties and making it tougher for people to drink and drive.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's making a difference? And I wonder, also, the consciousness of what effect this has on the way your boys think about driving. I mean, they grew up in the era in which it wasn't a joke. I mean, 20 years ago, like Chuck was pointing out…

State Delegate IVY: Right.

MARTIN: …you would see stories about some celebrity, particularly, just found drunk driving, so people would drive them home. The police will drive them home.

State Delegate IVY: Right.

MARTIN: And it wasn't - it was a storyline that was played for laughs in the media. That has changed very much culturally.

State Delegate IVY: It has.

MARTIN: Does that have an effect on the way your boys think about drunk driving?

State Delegate IVY: They think it's dumb, and they think Paris Hilton is just stupid for doing what she's done from beginning to end. So I'm happy about that. And my oldest son, we talk to him very much about if he's out some place and his ride looks like, you know, that person's been drinking or you know that person's been drinking, just call us up. We'll come get you. We won't ask any questions. We're not going to be a pain about it. We're just going to come and get you no matter what time it is. So that's one thing that's given him some confidence, that he knows that it's going to be okay. That if he runs into a situation that's dangerous, we're not going to let him come home that way.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask both of you this, because some are making the argument now that we've gone too far on the enforcement side with drunk driving because - Chuck, your shaking your head, but I just need to finish this point - some argue that we are making drinking the holy grail of adulthood. We make such a big deal out if it. I mean, you can enlist in the military. You can go defend your country in uniform, but you can't drink, you know, at 18. But you can't drink until you're 21. You can vote on 18, which is such an important responsibility. But you can't drink until your 21, and that this makes it so important that it actually leads to kids wanting to drink more. What would you say about that? And Jolene, I'm going to ask you that, too.

Mr. HURLEY: Well, the 21 drinking age is probably the best researched public health law in America - almost 50 period youth studies. And we wish it stopped kids from drinking. It doesn't always do that, but it does reduce consumption. It certainly reduces the late night bar to bar, across state lines traffic and has been a remarkable success. About 22,000 lives saved by it. So we've got more work to do to prevent binge drinking.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Some argue we should be teaching kids how to drink responsibly rather than just telling them to stop drinking, don't drink.

State Delegate IVY: Well, I grew up during the time when the drinking age was 18 in Florida - where I spent a lot of time at that time - for everything, for beer, wine, liquor. No matter what it was, you only had to be 18. And then 21 for - was in Maryland, I believe, for alcohol - you know, for liquor, but beer and wine you had to be 18. It was very confusing, so it was hard for people in one area to know what was the law. And I do think it's better to be consistent, and the 21 does seem to have decreased the number of fatalities. So if the numbers who that, then I think you just have to accept that and see that it's a good thing, no matter how you might feel about it.

MARTIN: Well, no matter how we might feel about Paris Hilton, at least we can thank her for giving us a reason to have this conversation. So thank you to both of you. Delegate Jolene Ivy, who represents Maryland's 47th district. She's one of our regular Mocha Mom contributors. Thanks so much for coming in.

State Delegate IVY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, Chuck Hurley, CEO of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He also joined us here in our studio. Thank you also for coming in.

Mr. HURLEY: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: It hangs 280 miles over the sky. It doesn't violate any legal infringements on space. You can't control it.

MARTIN: Coming up: using satellites to track human rights abuses. That's later on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

And next, is mental health New Orleans' latest crisis? That's coming up.

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