Drunken drivers face crackdown

August 17, 2006|By MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Federal and state traffic safety officials started a nationwide crackdown on drunken driving yesterday, saying previous efforts had not done enough to reduce deaths caused by impaired drivers. Drunken drivers accounted for about 13,000 deaths in traffic accidents last year.

The crackdown could face resistance from a growing industry devoted to defending people arrested on drunken-driving charges. The groups contend that overzealous police have inflated the problem out of proportion, trampling rights in the process.

The new effort, sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, involves 11,000 law enforcement agencies. It includes increased patrols and checkpoints, and an $11 million television advertising campaign that will replace the "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" slogan with "Drunk driving - over the limit, under arrest."

`Epidemic'

"Drunk driving is an epidemic and is a scourge of this country," said Jim Champagne, a Louisiana State Police trooper and chairman of the Governors' Highway Safety Association. "The cost to the country in lives, in jobs and in economic value is unbelievable."

The traffic safety agency released statistics yesterday showing that deaths in traffic accidents involving drivers whose blood-alcohol level was at least 0.08 percent fell 1.2 percent in 2005, to 12,945.

NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason said the decision to get tougher with drunken drivers followed a decade of small reductions in fatalities despite the large number of arrests, including 1.4 million in 2004.

"This is really focused on enforcement. This is not a friend asking a friend to not drive drunk," Nason said. The message is: "It's illegal to drink and drive, and you're going to go to jail for it."

During the past decade, federal officials and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers have pushed for tougher penalties against drunken drivers. Since 1999, every state has set its definition of drunk at the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level and added penalties such as on-the-spot cancellation of driver's licenses and vehicle impoundment for suspects who refuse blood-alcohol tests.

Champagne said states could do more and "stop piddy-padding in judicial systems and letting drunk drivers get off."

The changes have made a small dent in alcohol-related deaths but have spawned a network of companies and attorneys who defend people charged with drunken driving. The National College for DUI Defense has about 500 lawyers as members, and several Internet sites offer long lists of tips about what to do if pulled over for drunken driving.

Lawyer protests

"It's lawful in every state to drink and drive, but it's unlawful to drink to the point of impairment," said Patrick Barone, a Birmingham, Mich., lawyer who specializes in defending people charged with drunken driving. Roadblocks and checkpoints "are an inappropriate use of executive power and police resources."

Barone and other lawyers contend that the revenue from fines in drunken-driving cases leads to overly aggressive action by police, who they say arrest drivers whose breath smells of alcohol but show no signs of impairment.

William Head, an Atlanta lawyer who handles about 1,000 drunken-driving cases a year, said arrest quotas at some police departments sweep up innocent people.

"Zero tolerance is a great slogan, but it's not the law in any state in the country," he said.

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