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Minnesota Lags in DWI Prevention

April 17, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Before I sobered up more than 30 years ago, I habitually drove drunk. Luckily, I never caused a crash or faced DWI charges -- even though I wasn't a state legislator with supposed immunity from such embarassments. Not that it mattered much anyway. Back then, Minnesota's drunken driving penalties were laughably lax.

Thanks largely to persistent advocacy from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded in 1980, much has changed. It's now estimated that drunken driving can cost the nearly 30,000 Minnesotans arrested for it each year as much as $20,000 in fines and court costs, legal fees and higher insurance premiums, not to mention the loss of one's license to drive plus jail time, or even a prison sentence for chronic offenders.

Yes, we've toughened up against a reckless crime that MADD says is "100 percent preventable" but still kills more than 100 annually hereabouts and 10,000 nationwide. Minnesota, however, remains in the bottom quarter of all the states for adopting proven policies to reduce impaired driving's harms, according to MADD's annual rankings.

Don't be surprised. Remember, the Land of 10,000 Roadside Taverns was the final holdout against tightening the threshold for drunken driving to a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, forfeiting millions in federal road dollars in the last decade for its intransigence.

Our current shortcomings in MADD's accounting put us behind the entire southern and southwestern United States, wide-open Alaska and North Dakota and even "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire. Minnesota gets just two stars out of five from MADD and only Montana and Rhode Island rate worse with one. The eight other two-star states are concentrated in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, places where the endemic "liberalism" apparently extends to forbearance for drunken drivers.

This is neither smart nor reflective of traditional progressive focus on public health and safety.

What are the beefs? MADD faults Minnesota mainly on two counts, a failure to require ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders when their driving privileges are restored, plus our lack of highway sobriety checkpoints. The organization puts less emphasis on a third practice missing here, streamlined legal procedures to measure the intoxication of drivers who refuse testing at the point of arrest.

Sobriety checkpoints, in use in 38 states and the District of Columbia, were found unconstitutional in Minnesota by the state Supreme Court as an unreasonably broad form of search and seizure. "These checkpoints are proven to reduce drunk driving fatalities by up to 20 percent by providing a general deterrent to drinking and driving," MADD says. In Minnesota, though, the court ruling is the last word absent an unlikely constitutional amendment.

Elected policymakers could, however, do something about interlocks and what MADD calls "no-refusal activities."

Minnesota law now requires first-time DWI offenders at an alcohol concentration of 0.16 percent or above -- double the legal limit -- and all subsequent offenders to use ignition interlocks to regain their driving privileges. In addition, drunken drivers whose licenses are canceled or revoked may need to use interlocks for up to six years before regaining full privileges.

The devices, breathalyzers linked to a vehicle's ignition system, are recommended for all offenders by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Transportation Safety Board. So far, only 20 states have complied, typically requiring first-time offenders to use interlocks for six months and repeat offenders for longer. MADD estimates that 305,000 interlocks were in use in the United States as of last July, triple the number in 2006, when it launched its policy campaign and only New Mexico required them for all offenders.

CDC research "indicates that ignition interlocks, on average, reduce drunk driving recidivism by 67 percent compared to license suspension alone," MADD reports. "License suspension with no interlock requirement is not the best approach, as 50 to 75 percent of those convicted continue to drive.

"First-time offenders are serious offenders and, in fact, are not that different from multiple drunk driving offenders," MADD adds. "Research from CDC indicates that first-time offenders have driven drunk at least 80 times before they are arrested. Additionally ... first offenders' patterns of recidivism are generally similar to a repeat offender."

Refusing an alcohol test at a traffic stop is a crime in Minnesota, which "has lowered the rate of refusals," said Dawn Duffy of the state Office of Traffic Safety. Still, authorities need a court order to force testing of refusers, but often can't get one before most of the alcohol is gone from a suspect's system. MADD says 32 states now provide officers easy and quick access to a warrant in such cases by making judges and prosecutors readily available, a program that also discourages refusals.

Minnesota meets MADD's standards in just two areas: administrative license revocation at the point of arrest and heightened penalties for drunk driving with a child passenger; in Minnesota these include seizure of license plates or even the vehicle.

MADD's report makes no mention of legislative immunity from prosecution as a drunken driving problem. The organization did, however, endorse action on that issue last week in the Minnesota House.

The focus of debate on the state Constitution's grant of a "get-out-of-jail-free" card for legislators in session was on drunken driving, although there's no known case of anyone evading such an arrest that way. Even so, a bipartisan dirty baker's dozen of 13 representatives -- including three from the Iron Range and environs, where a former member once declared that folks "wake up at 0.08" -- voted no.

Lack of unanimity on this largely symbolic measure doesn't bode well for substantive improvement in Minnesota's drunken driving laws anytime soon. Some of the naysayers complained that the bill was too trivial to warrant time on the House floor. That's a reasonable point, but we'll see what kind of support they and their colleagues offer for serious steps the state could take to combat the real plague of impaired driving.

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