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Published October 08 2012

Forum editorial: North Dakota’s latest No. 1 rank a tragedy

The excuse-makers and captives of the alcohol industry – and the industry itself – should be mightily embarrassed that North Dakota leads the nation in the percentage of fatal crashes that involve alcohol, and is No. 2 in DUI arrests per capita and DUI deaths per highway miles driven. All North Dakotans should be embarrassed and, we would hope, outraged.

Consider North Dakota statistics in light of national numbers. A reasonable conclusion is that everything from vigorous education to half-hearted public policy is not working. While alcohol crash deaths are down in the U.S., North Dakota’s are up.

The numbers are staggering; the stories of families behind the numbers are tragic. The loss of life caused by drunken drivers is emerging as one of North Dakota’s historic failures. The family heartache cannot be measured by statistics. The escalating numbers cannot be denied.

In a state that does a lot of things well, policymakers have been reluctant to seriously address a problem they’ve known about for decades. The refusal of the Legislature to send the right message to would-be drunken drivers suggests – does not yet prove – that the beverage lobby and hospitality industry have had their way with lawmakers. With some digging, that influence likely can be quantified. In light of the alcohol-related traffic tragedies recently in the news, the last thing those businesses need is to be perceived as culpable.

Well, say lawmakers, the problem is cultural, and “we” can’t legislate the culture away. That’s exactly right and exactly wrong. It’s also a poor excuse for enabling a state to lead the nation in crashes that involve alcohol. And not just any crashes: fatal crashes.

The cultural question is a key. Of course the roots of alcohol abuse are cultural. But for lawmakers to wring their hands and do nothing while whining about “the culture,” is an abdication of responsibility. Laws that are tough enough – that send the right signal – can, over time, change culture. It’s not speculation. Nations and states that have made drunken driving penalties very tough either no longer have a problem or have seen alcohol-related traffic deaths go down. They changed the alcohol culture.

But that’s not the trend in North Dakota. Instead of using the power given to them by voters to do the right thing, North Dakota legislators have made excuses (“well, it’s all about personal responsibility, isn’t it?”) to justify their relationships with special interests that have resisted tougher DUI laws and additional regulation of the booze and bar business. All of it is part of the same problem. It won’t be solved until the state rises above “the culture.”

North Dakota is doing well. We’re near the top in college education; No. 2 in oil production; best business climate; lowest crime rates; best public schools; livable cities. Come to North Dakota to be educated, do business, earn a good living, and live in a safe neighborhood. Oh, by the way, you will have a better chance of getting killed by a drunken driver than in any other place in the nation. Is that what we want North Dakota to be?

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

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