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When Are We Going to Take Drunken Driving Seriously?

Let's follow the European example and make drinking any amount and driving illegal!

Do me a favor. Go to your local Patch website and type “DUI” in the search field. Astonishing isn’t it?

But the irony is, because it’s the most often reported story, we don’t pay much attention until someone with a relatively high profile gets nabbed. Somehow, we’ve gotten to the point were the inevitability of drunken driving has become a given.

And I’m just as guilty as everyone else. It took the recent Patch news story on the Batavia girls high school softball coach who resigned as a result of a DUI charge to make me seriously start thinking about this persistent problem.

It brought back one my frequent conversations with former Kane County State’s Attorney John Barsanti, who made a very interesting point about our cultural mindset. He said, while most of us are quick to say things like, “It’s illegal to drink and drive,” it really isn’t.

The truth is, you’re well within your rights to have a few beers at a bar or enjoy a bottle of wine at a restaurant as long as you don’t cross that magic .08 blood alcohol level line.

Barsanti cogently noted, “The real problem is there’s a certain amount of drinking and driving people in this country are willing to tolerate. That’s the difference between the U.S. and Europe.”

So let’s take a closer look at exactly what .08 means.

Using my 180-pound frame as a point of reference, I would have to consume six 12-ounce beers, five 5-ounce glasses of wine, or five mixed drinks in a two-hour period on an empty stomach before I’d hit the legal limit.

Maybe I’m just a lightweight, but if I drank five Bloody Marys in two hours, I’d probably pass out. I’d certainly be in no condition to drive. And frankly, I wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel of a car after imbibing just half of the amounts I described.

And science backs me up.

For example, at the .05 BAC level, drivers start to suffer from lowered alertness as well as minor muscle control loss which includes the ability to quickly focus their eyes. A 20- to 29-year-old with a BAC of .05 is 20 times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash.

Even at the .02 level, most drivers demonstrate a loss of judgment, a decline in visual function, and their multi-tasking capacity heads right out the window.

So Barsanti (now a judge) was dead on. Though we consistently make noise about getting tough on drunk drivers, it’s difficult to do that when our basic premise is you can go ahead and drive impaired—but only up to a point!

So what’s our reaction to all this? Not much!

While the police do their best to get these inebriated folks off the road, because the courts generally proceed as if driving is a right and not a privilege, it takes multiple DUIs before we’ll take someone’s license.

The DuPage and Kane County state’s attorneys are so frustrated by chronic DUI offenders who know how to play the aforementioned system, they’ve resorted to “No Refusal Weekends,” where motorists are randomly stopped at pre-announced check points.

First, any chronic drunken driver worth his margarita salt pays attention to the papers and, armed with the knowledge of exactly where the cops will be, avoids them.

And second, no matter what any judge tells you, it’s patently unconstitutional to pull someone over without probable cause. Despite some politicians best efforts, we’re still innocent until proven guilty.

Then MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) chimes in and, though their hearts are in the right place, their draconian breathlock focus on first-time offenders only makes matters worse when the repeat offender that’s the real problem.

Ironically, Barsanti also told me that, when folks do complain about No Refusal Weekends, they never cite the Constitution. They claim the state’s attorney is impinging up on their “right” to have a few cocktails with dinner.

So how do we change this prevailing mindset? Personally, I believe the key to that shift lies in Barsanti’s brief allusion to European DUI laws.

In Sweden, if you blow a .02 that will get you a DUI. That means just one beer on an empty stomach and you’re facing a fine that amounts to 10 percent of your annual income as well as a one-year license suspension.

If your BAC level is determined to be .10, it’s a minimum of six months in jail at hard labor, even for your first offense. Your license isn’t suspended – it’s permanently revoked. Get caught a second time, and you’re off to the pokey for two years.

And the statutes are very similar throughout the EEU.

Word to the wise! If you ever avail yourself of a European rental car, the local gendarmes specifically target those vehicles because they know most Americans have no clue about these DUI laws.

The bottom line is, though these statutes seem unduly harsh, they work, because the fact that, drinking any amount and driving is illegal, has been indelibly imprinted upon the average European’s mind.

Now, before you say this shift would doom restaurants and bars to extinction, please remember that we’re talking about a culture that allows their children to have a glass of wine with dinner. But as a Swedish friend told me, there’s always a designated driver who doesn’t touch a drop.

“They may have drunks sleeping in the parks in Stockholm,” she said, “but no one drinks and drives in Sweden.”

So with such an obvious solution staring us straight in the face, in light of that insistent Patch DUI coverage, I keep wondering when we’re going to start taking this problem seriously.

I say, let’s follow the European example and make it illegal to drink and drive.

Patrick Sennett July 13, 2012 at 01:05 PM
Well then, you're going to have to take out vehicle radios, ban any cell phones from vehicles, and make all vehicles no-talking zones because distracted drivers are the #1 cause of MVCs. Then, you'll have to put governers in all vehicles tied to a government-approved map of speed limits, because speeding (including loss of control) is #2. Drunk driving is #3. The point is, there are laws for all of the above, they have equal likelihood to involve other drivers / serious injury / death, and they all involve humans making bad choices. You gonna lock up people who text and drive for six months since that person is more likely to cause an accident as a drunk?
Bob LeMay July 13, 2012 at 02:21 PM
@Patrick: Personally, I agree with the cell phone ban, because studies have shown that talking on the phone takes your attention away from driving, even if you use a hands-free device--your mind is figuratively somewhere else. Drivers should only use a cell phone in a moving vehicle in an emergency. Listening to the radio or talking to a passenger don't have the same level of distraction (talk radio may be worse than music, in terms of emotional involvement). A passenger has an inherent interest in paying attention to their surroundings and how the driver is performing, after all! Of the top 3 reasons you cite, speeding is the easiest to patrol, as the speed of the vehicle can be ascertained without stopping it or violating anyone's "rights", so probable cause is not required. I think that we have let speeding get out of hand in the U.S. Although many claim that speed limits are set unrealistically low as a revenue-generating scheme by local governments, if that were the real case, they're doing a lousy job of collecting "easy money"! I think people are just basically ignorant, selfish, AND not paying attention (those darn cell phones!). Speed limits are set for the "common good", based on logical factors like reaction time, # of entrances and businesses along the road, type of area (residential, school, commercial), keeping traffic moving at the same rate, and other reasonable factors.
Kyle Jordan July 13, 2012 at 03:00 PM
I agree, ban cell phones all together! Also, how about the pizza place owner in Downers Grove that was arrested for DUI this year? He has liquor licenses in 2 establishments, but isn't responsible himself! I think we should hold people accountable. He wants to profit from selling alcohol, then learn how to control it and use it properly for himself!!!! I know a lot of companies that require their salesmen with company cars to not get tickets or DUIs, or they lose their car privelages and maybe their job! Let's do the same here!
Kent Frederick July 13, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Bob, I was once behind a car on Route 83 that was drifting from side to side in its lane, and kept speeding up and slowing down. The driver appeared to be in a very animated conversation with the passenger, looking at the passenger and shaking a finger. Clearly, the conversation was so distracting that the driver couldn't drive straight and at a constant speed. As to speed limits, sometimes I can't figure out what was the thinking for the speed limit. I've been on roads in the Chicago are that are one speed, only to see a 10 mph decrease upon entering the next suburb, with no significant changes in the area. I think suburbs will set a speed too low, just to get revenue from speeders. By the same token, I was recently in Houston, where freeways in the urban and suburban areas are 65mph. Considering that traffic volumes are similar to the expressways and tollways in Chicago, that speed limit is too high.
J.O. July 13, 2012 at 03:20 PM
When will the cars drive themselves? Problem solved.
Mr.Ethics July 13, 2012 at 03:33 PM
The .08 is the problem. Nobody knows when you cross that magic number. Put a breath tester in every establishment that serves alcohol. Let the patron test themselve when they leave. If they are over .08 and still start their car, they deserve a DUI.
Katie Kather July 13, 2012 at 03:38 PM
Jeff, I think you have a good point. Don't they say "buzzed driving is drunk driving?" I don't know what .08 looks like on me, but I know I don't feel comfortable driving after even one drink. Living in the suburbs makes it hard because people always drive. Public transportation isn't as accessible and most people won't walk somewhere unless the destination is under a mile. I wish there was an easy solution to this problem, but I think it is multifaceted. I like the idea of harsher penalties though.
Joseph R. Martan July 13, 2012 at 05:30 PM
The solution for DUI is really quite simple - adopt the policy of China - six months penal incarceration for the first offense. Years ago, either Bolivia or Ecuador had the ultimate penalty - death for the first offense. The problem with DUI is that the judiciary does not really take the offense very seriously. Some judges actually think it a joke. Others bend over backwards to accomodate the drunk driver, worrying more about the effect of losing his license on his family members rather than the public being subjected to someone behind the wheel of a two ton missile. And what about that scandal our local press disclosed several weeks ago on repeated offenders still be given "supervision" rather than a more severe penalty. As for the cell phone problem - simply ban their use AT ANY TIME whenever a vehicle is in motion - PERIOD! There is nothing so important that a person has to gab on a cell phone while driving.
Bob Carter July 13, 2012 at 05:47 PM
I am sorry but harsher penalties on drunken driving aren't the answer. It may make some people feel better but hasrher penalties on drugs hasn't helped anything. Furthermore the accidents we see arent a result of people under .08. If people are driving poorly (outside an setablished law - pull them over and take appropriate action. To do what he local police in St Charles do is right on the edge of a polic state. Their rudness to the citizens is apparent. Sit in an open air bar or walk the streets at night. The are particularly rude to our young people.
DSA July 13, 2012 at 09:55 PM
6 12 ounce beers and 25 ounces of wine in a 2 hour period to hit that limit? Wrong. You'd be way way over .08 if you consumed that amount in a 2 hour period. Why do you do your homework before you post on something you know nothing about. Good grief.
Jeff July 13, 2012 at 10:15 PM
For all you 'punish harder' folks, I look forward to the day when your moderate behavior is on the wrong end of someone's extremist crusade. Please don't protest the harsh treatment you perceive or call on such outdated concepts as 'constitutional rights'...noone will listen to your reason, noone will use judgement. You'll hear about 'studies that show' and 'cops who just know'. And you'll be just as punished.
Jeff July 13, 2012 at 10:22 PM
In other words, this really isn't shouldn't be about drinking and driving at all. This is about driving impaired. It doesn't matter what impairs you. Abolish drunk driving laws and place the emphasis on identifying and dealing with reckless driving.
BB July 13, 2012 at 11:19 PM
That's a good point. Impaired judgement and reactions are what kill people on the road. Whether that means being drunk, texting, talking to a passenger or just being 90 years old. Throwing down a zero tolerance limit for one specific form of impairment is a 'feel good' measure that politicians can feel comfortable rallying around (after all, who in their right mind is in favor of drunk driving?) But it's not going to make you any safer on the road. Heck, for my money - permanently revoke the license of the middle aged columnist who almost ran down the bicyclist in the crosswalk.
Donald Ramsell July 14, 2012 at 12:07 AM
Where is your source support for the statement that at 0.02 "most drivers demonstrate a loss of judgment, a decline in visual function, and their multi-tasking capacity heads right out the window." Perhaps you should look up Dubowski's Acute Stages of Intoxication, the definitive word on these things.
Dan July 14, 2012 at 02:08 AM
What we need to do is realize that reaching a certain age level doesn't make you a responsible drinker. Alcohol consumption should be more like driving an earned privilage not a right. Why not license drinkers as well as drivers. This would give law enforcement another tool by allowing them to take away from an individual that abuses alcohol the ability to purchase it. All licenses like roofing, plumbing and driving have a requirement to carry proper insurance. Those that prove themselves high risk would pay a higher price and may find themselves uninsurable and unable to get a drinkers license. So as well as 50 hours behind the wheel with your teenager you might find yourself doing 50 hours of drinking at the ball park with him before he is able to graduate from learners permit to full fledged licensed drinker.
Rline July 14, 2012 at 02:54 AM
First of all , how did this article get published with wrong information regarding the law? If you blow below .08 that's still a DUI. You get two tickets when you get arrested for drunk driving. One for driving under the influence and ANOTHER if you are over .08. This is a direct quote from the Rules of Road Illinois handbook page 46. " ...However, you can be convicted of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) if your BAC is less than .08 percent and your driving ability is impaired." Drunk Driving is a SOCIETY problem. When people go out and have drinks instead of telling a friend, "give me your keys I'll call a cab" , they ask " Are you okay to drive?" That is the problem. Somehow in this culture drinking and driving is a joke. I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone my age (mid twenties) laugh about times they've driven drunk. Look around, and you will notice how embedded drinking and driving is in society. Go to a sporting event, a bar, a restaurant and watch how many people drink alcohol then get behind the wheel. I can't tell you how many times I've been offered a drink even after saying "no, I'm driving" the reply is always , "Just have one".....Why does anyone NEED to drink anyways?!
Erik Bloecks July 15, 2012 at 08:22 PM
If we want to start to mirror the punishment that Europe has, perhaps we should also take a look at the drinking ages of those European Countries too. Something could be said fo their methods. We need to be harder on those that are wreckless when they drink but we also need to teach our young better ways about alcohol. Having the age at 21 needs to be rethought. Have all the reports of DUI from much olders drivers maks one think that we are doing something wrong.
T884 July 20, 2012 at 10:30 PM
Every time someone is killed by cell phone or texting distraction, I place the blame squarely at people like the author - Jeff Ward, YOU are to blame for those deaths. Why? because of people like him, lawmakers are endlessly one upping each other incrementally increasing the penalties for DUI while failing to make any laws about cell phone/texting/iPhone use AT ALL. Driving in traffic, you see 1/2 of all drivers glued to these things In 1980, MADD corrected an imballance of perception about alcohol and traffic safety. But today, it and zeolots like Jeff Ward CREATE an imballance of perception in alcohol vs device distraction, which causes people to DIE
No more taxes September 03, 2012 at 06:20 PM
agree with Jeff on this one, harsher penalties, loss of license, lose car or $10000 automatic fine first offense, find a way where lawyers can't get clients off, 2nd offense automatic time in jail and higher fine, also lose car driving in no matter who owns it., make it unbearable to get caught, have police follow repeat offenders near their house and spot check them
Rhonda Fuller September 22, 2012 at 05:01 PM
Isn't that "profiling"?

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