Thursday, October 18, 2007

More reason than ever to Not Drink and Drive

I am mourning for the people who don't get it yet. Maybe you are one of them. You might be one of the many people who still lives in a blissful state of ignorance about just how bad of an idea it is to go out somewhere to drink 2 or more drinks and then drive home. No, I'm not talking about the fact that it would suck if you got pulled over and arrested for DUI. And it would. It's a big hassle, of course. You might go to jail (at least for a number of hours), you might have to hire a lawyer, you might have to pay a big fine, take a class, pay higher insurance rates into the foreseeable future etc. etc. No, that's not what I'm mourning. A simple DUI can function as a wake-up call to some; even the arrest can be enough to make many swear they will never take that chance again. A minority will say they're done with alcohol altogether. Nevertheless, that isn't what I'm really sad about. I'm sad for the people - the hard-working, good, honest, morally and mentally together people, with jobs, families, the works - who just don't get it (yet). They don't get something that criminal lawyers get. They don't get something that d.a.'s, cops, probation officers, parole agents, judges, and state prisoners (and their families) get. What is this big thing to be gotten you ask? It is the thin line between an ordinary everyday existence as a productive member of our society and a lifetime of hell on earth; the hell on earth that one undoubtedly experiences when one is sentenced to spend the rest of their life in prison for MURDER. Yes, I said, MURDER.
How could that happen to me or anyone I call a friend or a family member? Murderers are the people you see on TV with the jumpsuits on. Those aren't really people, right? And if they are, they are weird, strange people, not like me, right? I would never end up there. After all, I've never gotten a speeding ticket. I pay my bills on time. I wear my seatbelt. I don't smoke. I don't talk with my mouth full. I am a considerate person. I go to church. I volunteer. My best friend is a police officer. I'm married to one. Etc. Etc. I'll never be one of those "murderers" in a jumpsuit on TV. I'm just not that kind of person. Think again. Unfortunately, there is nothing about you that says that you will never be driving a vehicle that is involved in an accident where another human being dies, is there? Okay, so let's just pray and hope that when that happens, it doesn't happen after you have put down 2 or more drinks. If it does, you are that person. What many don't understand is the law that says you can't drive with greater than .08 % of alcohol in your blood doesn't amount to permission to drive between .01 and .07%. If you are driving after those 2 plus drinks, you are arguably "impaired" by alcohol. Yes, you could be as low as .04, but that won't make you immune to a murder charge, especially not now.
Gov. Schwarzenegger just signed into law what is now known as the "Ambriz Act" in memoriam to Steve Ambriz who was the chief of staff for the Act's sponsor, Assemblyman Todd Spitzer. Ambriz was tragically killed in a traffic accident involving a woman who had both alcohol and methamphetamine in her system. Prior to this law becoming effective (January 1, 2008), you have to be a repeat offender to meet the fate of being charged with murder for a negligent act of killing someone with your vehicle while "under the influence" of alcohol. This law has just, in a sense, rendered all of us repeat offenders come New Years Day. We won't be treated any different than the guy last month who was sent to prison for life because he supposedly knew better. Now, as people licensed to drive in California, we will have to acknowledge in writing (when we apply for a license or renewal) that driving a motor vehicle is a dangerous activity and, that if someone is killed as the result of our DUI, we can be charged with murder.

I hope this law saves a life. If you think about it, though, it serves to make nearly every single-fatality DUI accident an event where two lives are lost. At least two families will lose a loved one forever for every fatal accident caused by an act of DUI; this is what the law really says. It dramatically compounds the human tragedy in the hope that doing so will influence people's future behavior. There are some that believe that whenever the law gets tough, people take notice and change their ways for the better so that they will not end up in its clutches. I sincerely hope so. However, I, unfortunately, cannot accept this premise. The laws are already very tough. No, we don't impose the death penalty on DUI defendants yet, but we have steadily moved in that direction for decades. In spite of the many laws that have been enacted in recent times to increase the jail time and the fines, to worsen the drivers license consequences, and make it easier to convict someone accused of DUI, DUI still presents an unacceptable risk to human life. The number lives lost each year due to DUI each year are still counted in the 10's of thousands. Laws can help, but they can't completely solve the problem. I challenge law makers to address the problem holistically. Public transportation and education are two very effective and under-utilized deterrents to the behavior.
Unfortunately, California law makers only seem to address the problem by upping the punishments by enacting new "get tougher" laws each legislative session. Supposing they succeed one day in enacting a law which makes DUI an act punishable by the death penalty; what are we then going to do when DUI caused fatalities keep occurring in spite of this law? Let's start now to address the problem from different directions. The potential of the criminal justice system to reduce the numbers of traffic fatalities may very well be tapped at this point. It's time, at least, to start thinking about that. Getting tough makes perfect sense when it is someone you don't know who is in the jumpsuit. I promise you that you will feel very differently about this law when it is you or a loved one in the jumpsuit. Also, it is wrong to suppose that every family member of someone tragically killed in a DUI accident is clamoring for the offender to go to prison at all, let alone prison for life.

I know I'll be talking to you someday. You'll be in jail, in a jumpsuit, and I'll be telling you (through the glass on one of those phones) that I wish that you read this post before it was too late for you and the person(s) that you killed. Consider this your early wake up call.

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