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Jane Ahlin, Published July 28 2012

Ahlin: America is out of excuses regarding drunken driving

When it comes to drunken drivers causing the deaths of innocent people on our roads, America is out of excuses. Sorrow and sadness expressed at the time of such tragedies in no way make up for disregarding common sense in lawmaking the rest of the time. Logic demands action, but it is as if putting real teeth into drunken-driving laws is beyond our collective will – as if tragedy is easier to live with than changing our habits.

The horror of drunken driving was brought home to our area once again when a young family from West Fargo was killed a few weeks ago. The driver of the car that hit them head-on was going the wrong way on Interstate 94, a driver whose blood alcohol exceeded the legal driving limit by more than three times. The driver, who also was killed, had several arrests associated with drunken driving in his background.

It was an incomprehensible tragedy, and yet, any idea that the driver had an unusually bad record for drunken driving was put to rest within days when a 60-year-old West Fargo man was arrested for the 14th time on a drunken-driving charge.

That a man with 14 drunken-driving arrests could still be on the roads makes clear how ineffective our laws are.

On a trip to Norway this past spring, my husband and I learned the ways strong laws change driving habits. Norway has stiff driving penalties – actually, all of Scandinavia does – and Norwegians know that their laws allow for no exceptions. A first offense for having a blood alcohol level of more than 0.02 means weeks in jail at hard labor. The driver is fined proportionate to his or her wealth and also suffers the loss of a license for a significant period. (Remember, these are penalties for a first offense.)

Evidently, in one case a few years back, a Norwegian millionaire with a 0.07 blood alcohol – picked up on a random check and not because he had an accident – was put in jail for 30 days of hard labor chopping wood, fined the equivalent of 85,000 U.S. dollars, and deprived of a driver’s license for three years. He made clear he’d learned his lesson; however, if there should be a second offense within five years, his license would be revoked for life.

Talk about strong deterrents.

Be sure to note, too, that the millionaire’s offense of a 0.07 blood alcohol is below our legal driving limit, which is 0.08 in most U.S. states, including North Dakota and Minnesota. Frankly, a legal level of 0.02 is so low that a Norwegian probably dares not drive after taking cough syrup. Certainly, our Norwegian relatives were adamant that no one gets behind the wheel even after two or three hours have elapsed since having one drink. Given the penalties, to do so would be foolish – an invitation to trouble.

What’s interesting is that Norwegians drink plenty, and not simply the adults. We were appalled at a tradition young people have of partying for an entire month between the end of classes their last year of high school and the time they take comprehensive exams. Called “russefiering,” it is a traditional celebration with special outfits for the students (overalls of a specific color printed with their graduation year) and specially decorated buses or vans for transportation to party sites. The celebration ends with Syttende Mai, Norwegian Constitution Day, when the students march in traditional parades.

Underage drinking for those kids is winked at, probably in part because there are no tragedies on the roads. Nobody drinks and drives. Put another way, the drinking habits of Norwegian society are based on their collective will to keep drunks off the roads. And it works.

It’s true that Norway, like other European countries, has excellent public transportation. In the cities, buses and trains run every few minutes, readily accessible to drinkers. However, Norway also has much rural mountainous terrain where people must drive when they go out for an evening. Designated drivers aren’t simply encouraged; they are a fact of Norwegian life.

It’s time to ask how much more unnecessary death it will take for us to make them a fact of American life, too.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.