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Published July 14 2012

Forum editorial: Toughen penalties for DUI

The reality in North Dakota (other states, too) is that more drunken drivers are on the road than ever get caught by police, sheriff or highway patrol. The officers who watch the roads know they are stopping only a small percentage of motorists who routinely drink and drive.

The tragedy last week of the death of four people in a crash on Interstate 94 west of Jamestown, N.D., (including the allegedly drunken driver of the vehicle responsible for the fatal accident) is yet another reminder that the culture of drinking is so entrenched in North Dakota (and rural Minnesota) that legislating tougher penalties on violators is an uphill battle.

Lawmakers seem captive of a powerful liquor lobby that often talks the talk but does not walk the walk. For example, every time Fargo or Cass County announces alcohol check points, The Forum receives a boilerplate letter to the editor from a lobbying arm of the booze industry, contending such check points are ineffective.

Legislators have bought into the notion that “personal freedom” and “personal responsibility” are substitutes for tougher laws. The record shows that’s nonsense. It is a perverted sense of freedom and a lack of personal responsibility that leads to alcohol abuse and drunken driving.

The North Dakota Legislature has done a little tweaking and adjusting of DUI laws over the years, but not enough to discourage impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel. Well, they say, tougher sanctions won’t stop a drunk from driving. That’s a crock.

Evidence from other nations – Norway in particular – confirms that very tough anti-drunken driving laws work. A guarantee of jail time, stiff fines and long-term loss of driving privileges tends to focus drivers’ attention.

Well, say defenders of drivers who drink, if the penalties are too harsh, they can affect a person’s livelihood or insurability or family. Yes, that’s right, and that’s the point. If the potential cost of driving while drunk is high, drivers will think twice or thrice before drinking and driving. Current statistics suggest they are not even thinking once.

Last week’s tragedy on Interstate 94 is a case in point. Had penalties for impaired driving been tougher, the driver of the vehicle that was traveling the wrong way on the highway (he had a long record of drinking and drug violations while behind the wheel) might not have been on the road. And a young North Dakota family might not be dead.

That’s something for lawmakers to think about.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.