The Repeater's Game

DWI --

April 19, 1994

Mothers Against Drunk Driving have been saying it for some time -- but without the statistics to prove it. Now they have the proof: Maryland's campaign against drunk driving is succeeding with social drinkers but not with drunks.

The number of drunken driving arrests per million miles driven has declined significantly, but over the last decade, repeat offenders increased sharply from 6 percent to 38 percent. Some 193 of these offenders have as many as six convictions.

In short, Maryland (and other states) appear to be succeeding in convincing people that drinking and driving are dangerous. The fear factor is working, but not with those addicted to alcohol.

For these people (most of them men), the lightweight treatment ordered in most Maryland courts for drunk driving -- outpatient counseling, mandated attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and the like -- has no discouraging effect.

Within days of a conviction, too many of these people are back behind the wheel with a snootful of booze, as dangerous as any street criminal. Automobiles don't kill people; drunk drivers do.

The frustrating reality is that jail doesn't deter these offenders, either. They need sustained treatment, but the cost has been prohibitive. Now, though, Maryland officials are talking about "privatized" treatment, with the costs paid by the offenders themselves.

One such program in Prince George's County has had good results in six years of operation. Offenders are sentenced to a month of in-patient counseling under minimum security and then closely monitored for a year. If they don't show up for weekly sessions, or if they're found to be drinking, only then are they jailed. Prince George's says only 8 percent of those who complete the program have had relapses.

That should be the goal everywhere else in the state. When 38 percent of the state's drunk drivers are repeaters, new ways must be found to combine punishment with treatment. If this doesn't happen, these people will kill and maim -- at a much higher cost to society than treating them now.

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