Michael Phelps was largely forgiven for driving drunk near Salisbury University in 2004 because he was 19 years old. The charge was reduced to driving impaired, his record ultimately wiped clean by the courts. Five years later when a photo of him inhaling from a water pipe commonly used to smoke marijuana hit the Internet, he apologized again, and that incident blew over quickly as well.
But what happened early Tuesday morning outside the Fort McHenry Tunnel was different. The man who possesses the most Olympic medals of any athlete in history failed a Breathalyzer test. He was caught driving under the influence, going 84 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone and crossing a double line. He could have killed someone, including himself.
This son of Maryland, this hero to countless swimmers and schoolchildren, isn't a kid anymore. He is 29 years old. What he has done won't be resolved with another scolding or fine or similar slap on the wrist. This is no youthful indiscretion. Perhaps this is the first time he's done this in a decade, but more typically, drunk drivers get away with their infractions many times before they're caught.
Mr. Phelps has already posted an apology on social media acknowledging the "severity" of his actions and that he has "let down" the public. But such words are cheap when you are a one-man corporation with an agent, a coach and endorsement deals and money. It's too early to suggest an appropriate outcome in the courts this time around, but there is action Mr. Phelps could take that could do both him and his state a lot of good.
The swimmer should voluntarily submit to a genuine life preserver — an ignition interlock system, a device wired to his car's ignition that detects alcohol on his breath. A vehicle with such technology won't start unless the driver is sober, and it continues to periodically check the driver's breath as the car is running. Had Mr. Phelps had an ignition interlock on his 2014 Land Rover, he wouldn't have been driving drunk — at least not in that vehicle.
But it shouldn't stop there. When January rolls around and the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes for its 2015 legislative session, Mr. Phelps should march up the House Judiciary Committee and explain why ignition interlock devices should be mandated for all those convicted of driving under the influence in Maryland. Every. Single. Time.
The state has made progress in this direction. In May, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation requiring adults convicted of DUI while transporting a minor be required to install the safety systems. And previously, the General Assembly has mandated them for those convicted who are under age 21, have multiple offenses or have a high blood alcohol level (.15 or greater).
But the esteemed men and women of Annapolis haven't taken it far enough. They have considered the balance between the expense and inconvenience of an ignition interlock for first-offenders versus the lives that might be spared if it was required and found those lives wanting. Perhaps if someone greatly loved and admired — and with personal experience with the devices — could bring national attention to the cause, it might be different this time around.
Real lives are at stake in this debate. Maryland recorded 160 DUI-related traffic fatalities in 2012. That's roughly one-third of all traffic-related deaths here. Nearly half of the country has enacted sweeping ignition interlock laws, and early adopters like New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana and Oregon have seen a 30 percent drop in DUI-related deaths. This is why the proposal continues to be a top priority for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Adopting the cause won't solve everything that ails a person now regarded as a problem drinker and a threat to the community. And Mr. Phelps may have no more success with the state legislature than have the families of drunk driving victims who have made similar pleas in the past. But maybe it could make a difference and perhaps he might take his message to other states that have fallen short in this area or to Congress.
Ignition interlock devices reduce drunk driving recidivism. That's a fact. People will listen to a famous world-class athlete. That's a given, too. Within this disappointment perhaps there's an opportunity for something of far greater consequence than Olympic glory.
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