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James Ferragut, Published November 24 2012

Ferragut: ND must stop giving free pass to drunken drivers

It was a Friday night in February 1967. I was 16 and my world was about to change forever. A week earlier a good friend, Peter, had been drinking and driving. He rolled his pristine 1957 Chevy into a ditch. He was arrested, jailed, released to his parents and already had a court date scheduled.

The routine for high school kids in Fargo-West Fargo-Moorhead-Shanley was to converge at the YMCA at 9 on Friday nights for Canteen. There was always a live band, girls to meet, dancing, drama, fights, cops and a cast of 600. Pure 1960s Americana.

We were stupid, young teenagers who were quite adept at scoring beer (usually by bribing the bums on Main). We’d head out of town and drive the barren county roads between Fargo-Moorhead-Dilworth, blast the radio and drink and get primed for Canteen.

Peter’s arrest a week earlier didn’t deter his desire to get buzzed before Canteen. Since he didn’t have a car, I was the de-facto driver for the night. I had my mom’s 1967 Mustang, we had beer, and we were off to the county roads. I got stopped by the Clay County sheriff and his deputy. They found a 12-pack of Pfeiffer. We were both arrested and tossed in jail. My dad made sure I spent most of the night behind bars before he came and bailed me out. Peter was really in deep now.

My court date came quickly. The judge was tough, but my penance was tougher. I got three months of probation, and my license was suspended for six months. By June, I was given a special permit that allowed me to drive to and from my job at King Leo’s. The summer of my 16th year without being able to drive a car was brutal

My penalty fit the offense, and Peter’s second offense doubled his pain. I suffered the consequences of a series of very stupid decisions. You didn’t find me or my friends in a car with booze again. Ever.

A recent Forum article stated that “North Dakota has one of the most acute drunken-driving problems in the nation.” I think North Dakota’s soft position on drunken drivers is enabling and acquiescent to cultural and political pressure. If our laws are designed to actually change behavior, then the stakes have to be much, much higher.

America has the most lenient DUI laws and penalties in the world. In most countries, there is an embedded cultural mind-set that drunken driving is not only unacceptable but a morally shameful act. Countries in Europe, Asia and South America have either a no-tolerance blood alcohol content policy 0.00 percent or limits of 0.02 maximum. North Dakota, on the other hand, has a 0.08 BAC. The average North Dakota drunken driver’s BAC was 0.174

First-time offense penalties around the world range from mandatory loss of license of one to three years, heavy fines and up to six months in prison. Second offenses range from permanent loss of license, forfeiture of the car and prison from six months to three years. There aren’t many third offenses.

In North Dakota, a county judge gave first-time DUI offenders a free pass in order to prevent their insurance rates from going up. That makes Andy Taylor’s giving Otis Campbell the keys to Mayberry’s jail look like cruel and unusual punishment.

If we’re serious about addressing a problem that is urgent, a problem that affects and diminishes life’s experience beyond reason, then we can’t compare our DUI laws with those of neighboring states. That’s like trying to find the tallest Pygmy. We need to look at the rest of the world. Let’s see what effect mandatory prison, long-term loss of license and fines relative to personal income does to attitudes and behavior here. It just might save a life or two.

Ferragut is a strategic marketing consultant and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.