Educating drunken drivers Court: Some motorists charged with driving while intoxicated are sent to a "social drinker" class designed to scare them out of drinking and driving again.

December 31, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

For many New Year's Eve revelers, a night of drinking and driving could lead to stiff fines -- and a trip back to school.

The court-ordered schooling, which some call the "social drinker program," is a low-profile but often-invoked punishment used on drunken drivers who are not deemed to be alcoholics.

And this is the social drinker's busiest season for driving drunk.

"I think the social drinker is probably out on the road more during the holiday [season] than any other time of the year," said Michael M. Gimbel, who heads the Baltimore County Health Department's bureau of substance abuse.

The program -- usually 10 weeks long and funded by participants -- is not for everyone. In Baltimore County, for example, the proportion of motorists deemed social drinkers hovers around 25 percent, with the rest considered problem drinkers.

Still, the program has widespread impact. Since it began in 1985, 53,200 Marylanders charged with drunken driving have been sent to it as part of sentences that can also include fines, community service and a period of probation.

Judges in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties send people to the program fairly regularly, although Baltimore City and Carroll County judges say they do not use it. And judges who do use the program seem enthusiastic about it as a deterrent to recidivism -- even if some participants find it a bit boring.

Rose Marie Hurley, 62, of Parkville was one. She was stopped for drunken driving in September 1995 and convicted in Baltimore County District Court in June. She was sentenced to 18 months' probation and ordered to attend the program.

On a recent Tuesday evening, she sat in the second row of a satellite office of the county Health Department as Patricia A. Eichner taught a class of about 50 people a lesson on alcoholism.

Eichner posted a list of some causes of the disease. She also showed a film about how people respond -- often with denial -- when a family member has an alcohol problem.

During the film and lecture, one man seated in the back began to snore, and no one participated in a group discussion Eichner tried to initiate. "I fall asleep every time," Hurley acknowledged.

But she added that doesn't resent having to attend the class. "I think I'm learning something."

She said she would never drink and drive again -- which is really the goal of the course, according to Gimbel.

"The scary part of getting caught, and the education, hopefully will reduce" the number of repeat offenders, he said.

Social drinkers commonly have celebrated the holidays with a few too many drinks, then driven before the alcohol wore off, only to be stopped by police.

At the request of a judge or defense attorney, offenders can be evaluated in a half-hour test by county court employees to determine whether they are social drinkers.

In Baltimore County, for example, between 1,000 and 1,500 motorists arrested for drunken driving are screened each year, said Nicholas J. Gori, coordinator of criminal justice services for the bureau of substance abuse.

The free test probes whether the motorist has experienced blackouts, personality changes, hangovers or hallucinations because of alcohol abuse, and whether the drinking takes place while the motorist is alone or socializing.

Of the Baltimore County motorists tested this year, 27 percent were labeled social drinkers. That's up from 24 percent in 1995 and 22 percent in 1994. The rest were classified problem drinkers.

Judges say the screening provides them with a sound tool.

"If I have an evaluation by one of our evaluators, what I do most of the time is send them to the social drinker program, which I think is very effective," said Baltimore County District Judge Barbara R. Jung. "The majority of the time they don't come back because they are truly social drinkers."

Added Anne Arundel County District Administrative Judge Joseph P. Manck: "I do [it] almost routinely if it's a first-time offender and there's no indication of a drinking problem."

Still, the program is not appropriate for everyone.

"[It] is an option for someone who seems younger, [without] a basic understanding of alcohol, where the circumstances are not extreme," said Howard County District Judge Louis A. Becker III.

One drawback of the social drinker diagnosis is that it could be too lenient. Some county officials estimate that anyone caught driving drunk has probably gotten away with it 500 times before.

It's because drunken motorists "don't always think," said Margaret H. McIntyre, assistant director of the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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