Repeat drunken drivers are a national menace


Wary of sobriety checkpoints or responding to their conscience, some inebriated revelers call a cab. But the repeat drunken driver remains undeterred.

Repeaters are usually the heaviest drinkers. They are anti-social risk takers whose desire for alcohol seems to override everything, even fear of arrest.

"We all know who the persistent drinking driver is," said James Hedlund of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"They are the persons who drink and drive again and again, week after week, month after month, year after year. The person whose drinking and driving behavior has not been changed by information and education, who has not been deterred by drinking and driving laws and enforcement, and perhaps even by arrest and punishment."

Americans congratulate themselves for a reduction in the drunken driving carnage over the past decade.

Yet, motor vehicle accidents related to alcohol remain the single largest cause of death for Americans between the ages of 6 and 33 -- well above the toll taken by handguns.

In Maryland, after a decade of decline, alcohol-related crashes were up by 10 percent in 1993, to 9,355 from 8,468 in 1992. The number of deaths resulting from the accidents increased as well, to 292 in 1993 from 227 in 1992.

But the rate of alcohol-related fatalities appears to have slowed during 1994, with approximately 188 deaths reported in Maryland through the first 10 months of the year.

"The so-called hard-core represents a very significant part of the alcohol-fatal crash problem," said Herb M. Simpson, executive director of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada.

Mr. Simpson was one of a dozen experts who met at Woods Hole, Mass., this year to discuss the problem of repeat offenders.

Here and elsewhere, the general campaign to persuade drivers to avoid drinking continues amid a heightened concern about the role of repeaters.

* Across the United States, about 30 percent of those arrested on suspicion of drunken driving already have been convicted of that offense, according to Mr. Hedlund. In Maryland, the figure was 38 percent in 1993 and the trend was sharply up from 1984 when 7 percent were repeaters.

* Of the 17,762 men and women convicted of driving drunk in Maryland in 1993, 116 were in court on drunken driving charges for the sixth time. Five-time offenders numbered 193.

* Repeaters tend to have a far greater quantity of alcohol in their veins than do drivers being arrested the first time, according to several studies based on testing of drivers who were fatally injured in crashes and testing at sobriety checkpoints.

* Repeaters are more likely to be a factor in fatal crashes. That conclusion stems from a national Fatal Accident Reporting System study showing that 13 percent of intoxicated drivers involved in fatal crashes had a drunken driving conviction during the previous year. By contrast, only 3 percent of drivers involved in all crashes had such a conviction and that rate was over a period going back three years.

* Throughout the United States, the problem of repeaters has escalated, as evidenced by increasing license suspensions, according to safety experts from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and federal highway safety officials.

* Studies show that 80 percent of those who lose their licenses continue to drive, their actions a silent rebuke to the inability of states to enforce their laws.

In a widely publicized accident in New York last summer, a car driven by a man who had not had a valid license since 1967 struck a Brooklyn family in a crosswalk.

Traveling 70 mph, the car slammed into four members of the Vaccarello family as they left a wedding reception. The mother and two daughters were killed instantly, the father critically injured.

The driver, 66-year-old Abraham Meyers of New York, had been cited more than 100 times for driving offenses and failure to show up in court.

More than 17,400 people were killed in crashes involving drunken drivers during each of the past two years, even though the United States has reduced the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths over the past decade.

The increased effort to curb repeaters continues in what remains a forgiving attitude that reaches from the courthouse to the roadhouse. Much of society remains organized in a way that accommodates the drinker who drives.

Many taverns and restaurants with bars are accessible mainly by car.

Patrons typically drive to these establishments -- and then they drive home without a designated driver behind the wheel.

Last month, off-duty policemen from Baltimore and Baltimore County were killed in alcohol-related crashes as they drove home after drinking in roadside bars.

In fact, though alcohol has significant impact on perceptions and reactions at low levels, drinking and driving is not against the law.

Drinkers and their cohorts are left to gauge impairment on their own.

"Know when to say when," the ad says, yet impairment arrives before "when."

Changes occur in eyesight, judgment and reflex even when levels of alcohol in the blood are below the two-tier system of illegality in Maryland: With a blood-alcohol level of .07, a driver is guilty of driving under the influence; at .10, the charge is driving while intoxicated.

In Maryland, someone who loses his or her license over a weekend for driving with an illegal alcohol level can get a temporary permit Monday morning.

"No state that was serious about curbing drunk drivers would allow this," said Barry Sweedler, an official of the Transportation Research Board in Washington.

To be effective, Mr. Sweedler said, the suspension should last at least 30 days.

Drinkers who break the laws often are regarded as upstanding citizens who made a mistake.

Circuit Judge Vincent J. Femia, who handles many of the drunken driving cases in Prince George's County, contends that most of the offenders should be regarded as people who did not set out to commit a violation.

Records show that he and other judges throughout Maryland often assess penalties accordingly.

Prince George's pioneered the concept of "time and treatment," enforcing alcoholism treatment by linking it to incarceration, and Washington, Charles and Baltimore counties followed with their own drunken driving jails.

But the courts have been slow to capitalize on the concept in part because lawyers successfully argue that their clients are well-intentioned and the treatment too inconvenient.

Others are not sympathetic.

"There are people out there who will keep driving drunk because they're criminals," said Howard Merkur, a prosecutor in Baltimore County.

Alcoholism is a disease, but drinking and driving is not, he said.

"They may have a drinking problem, but nothing forces them to get behind the wheel."

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