The Salem News
Thursday, October 9, 2003
There was a car crash around the corner from my house last week, followed by a weekend of young people mourning at the tree that a young woman hit before she died. The Salem News reported that, according to Marblehead police, she lost control of the vehicle while following a speeding car driven by her boyfriend, who is now facing drunken driving charges.
Without more information, I can't judge who is responsible for this woman's death. I'm also not going to write about the young drivers who get drunk and kill only themselves. They make a decision to illegally drink, then drive, and in many cases they pay for it.
I feel bad for their families and friends, and as a parent can say, "There but for sheer blind luck could I have gone, when my son was young." Unless they encouraged or tolerated the drinking, as some foolish parents do, it was not their fault.
The people for whom I joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving are the innocent victims, who are killed or maimed by drunk drivers they didn't know and probably didn't even see coming. And when I think "there but for the grace of God..." I am thinking of my own family and friends who could become victims. And I know deep down that God's grace really has nothing to do with it.
Drunk driving is about personal responsibility. I know there can be a genetic disposition toward alcoholism, that it can be a disease; but many alcoholics have overcome their sickness, stayed in recovery, or at least never driven drunk. I know people like this, and admire them a lot. I know how hard it is to diet, and can imagine how much more difficult it must be to overcome a physical addiction.
Many drunk drivers are not alcoholics; they choose to abuse alcohol for some other reason. Life is tough, and it's understandable that sometimes we need to relax, to tune out, to indulge in escapism of one kind or another. I eat fudge, read novels, watch non-educational TV, daydream about a simpler, more organized lifestyle. But this endangers no one.
The courts often act as if killing someone while under the influence is somehow different than killing someone sober. Somewhere in America, a murderer, a thief, a sexual abuser is probably trying the excuse that he was not responsible for whatever crime he committed because he was drunk.
If I ran the world, all crimes would be judged as if the perpetrator were sober, because he was sober when he decided to drink and lose control of his judgment. Anything that follows after that initial decision is his fault.
I have no tolerance; I admit this. I think getting drunk is stupid. I think the mind is a terrible thing to drown.
I would have no shrines of flowers and teddy bears at trees where innocent people died. I would tie the drunk driver to the wood instead, and nail a sign above his head: "I made a decision not to care whom I hurt. I needed a thrill, to show off, to escape from my problems, more than other people needed to live."
Then I would send him to jail for manslaughter for as long as the law would allow; and if I were making the laws, it would be a very long time indeed.
According to extremebartending.com, in Scandinavian countries, drunk drivers go to jail and are given hard labor before they hurt someone. In Bulgaria, the second conviction results in execution. In El Salvador, the first offense is your last - you are shot by firing squad.
This does seem extreme. But is it worse than letting drunk drivers go free, often after many offenses, to drive and eventually kill a child on his bicycle, a senior walking to lunch, a young parent driving to work, a whole family on its way home from vacation? This is what happens in our civilized country over and over again.
So the commonwealth of Massachusetts, with its alleged fiscal crisis, has just lost $7 million in federal funds for road and bridge projects because it missed the Oct. 1 federal deadline to toughen the state's drunk driving laws. Even if our legislators ever get around to scheduling a debate, it will be a battle led on the wrong side by defense lawyers.
Innocent people will continue to die because too many lawmakers and judges look at the drunk driver and say, "There but for the grace of God go I." But I'm sure of one thing: The grace of God has nothing to do with it at all.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.