A new way to address drunk driving?

Some new research suggests that Massachusetts could benefit from a revision of its drunk driving laws, from a “no driving” model to a “no drinking” model.  The issue is somewhat humorously illustrated by a traditional Alcoholics Anonymous joke about the alcoholic who gets arrested for operating under the influence enough times that he decides to quit.  So he quits driving.

In Massachusetts, operating under the influence of alcohol – OUI (known as DUI or DWI to some people) – always carries with it a license loss, and for certain repeat offenders requires the installation and constant use of a sobrietor machine to operate a car after the license suspension period ends.  Many states have similar regimes.  However, as reported for the Wall Street Journal in 2015, by Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford and former senior White House policy adviser, starting about 10 years ago, South Dakota has had a system called 24/7 sobriety, which focuses on regular testing to ensure that a person on probation for repeated instances of drunk driving isn’t drinking ever, while at the same time allowing the probationer to drive all he or she wants, and they aren’t necessarily tested by an ignition interlock device, or “sobrietor,” when they go to start their car.  But they are tested every single morning and evening.  Penalties for testing positive for alcohol are modest but swift, typically involving an immediate overnight lockup for a first slip up.

The American Journal of Public Health has found that 24/7 sobriety programs result in a 12% decrease in repeat OUI cases, and also a 9% drop in domestic violence cases.  In the past few years, North Dakota, Montana and some U.S. cities have also started using the 24/7 sobriety model.

Resistance to the 24/7 sobriety approach may stem, according to Mr. Humphreys, from a misconception that recovery from a drinking problem requires the help of mental health professionals.  Perhaps reflecting this misconception, most second-offender OUI/DUI dispositions in Massachusetts result in the driver spending 14 days in an inpatient alcohol treatment program, and also come with a 2-year loss of license.  Despite this, research has shown that most people who beat their drinking problem do so without professional assistance, and the success of the 24/7 sobriety model shows that small-but-certain disincentives to drink are effective in modifying behavior among problem drinkers.

I don’t expect that Massachusetts will be modifying Melanie’s Law any time soon so as to make it easier for repeat drunk drivers to get back on the road, but perhaps it should.  It would certainly help to address a fundamental unfairness that obtains when someone in, for instance, southern Worcester county picks up an OUI and loses his or her license, and because of the nonexistence of public transportation, also loses their job.

Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan

Uxbridge, Worcester County, Massachusetts

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