Driving drunk again and again

January 12, 1995

How many horror stories does it take for the state's judges and legislators to take drunk driving seriously? Once again a study has shown that drivers who are habitually drunk infest the highways with what amounts to impunity. One Marylander, now sober and an alcoholism counselor, admitted to Evening Sun reporter C. Fraser Smith that he drove drunk for 18 years before he killed someone.

Advocates for stricter penalties for drunk drivers estimate that they break the law hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times before they are caught. But once in court, they are treated as first-time offenders. Strictly speaking, that's true: It's the first time they were caught. The courts can't base verdicts or sentences on assumptions about past behavior. But there is no requirement they let presumed first offenders off with a wrist slap, either.

Too often that's what they do. Judges dislike sending otherwise respectable people with good jobs and roots in the community to jail. Frustrated at their lack of success in rehabilitating other types of criminals, many judges are tempted to let drunk drivers go with a stipulation they get alcoholic counseling. But Mr. Smith reports that an increasing proportion of motorists arrested for driving drunk are repeaters -- some a half dozen or more times.

Despite these statistics, Maryland judges still give probation before judgment in a large number of cases. Unless the defendant transgresses during the probation period, there is no finding of guilt. Judges who use this device defend it as a valuable tool to force drivers with drinking problems into counseling. But there is clearly a good deal of disagreement among the judges, since the use of PBJ, as it is known, varies wildly around the state.

In the year ended last June 30, 30 percent of drunk driving cases ended with PBJ in Maryland's district courts. But the frequency of that disposition ranged from 4 percent in Somerset County to more than 50 percent in Baltimore and Harford counties. Regional circumstances didn't play a role in the discrepancies: Somerset's neighbor, Wicomico, was above the state average at 37 percent. Kent County judges employed PBJ twice as often as their colleagues in nearby Caroline. Calvert County allowed PBJ four times as often as neighboring St. Marys. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the variable in these figures is judges' own attitudes toward drunk drivers.

There's not much point in drunk-driver checkpoints and other enhanced enforcement on the highways unless motorists know they face serious punishment, even for what's technically a first offense. Probation has its uses, but not when it serves to cleanse the records of chronic drunks.

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