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Fear, not weak laws, cut down on drunk driving

T.R. Fehrenbach
San Antonio Express-News, Texas

The U.S. is not the only country to suffer from DWI; the problem is inherent wherever there are cars and booze. Sweden, however, is one nation that largely controlled driving under the influence. The Swedish experience affords no solution to the American problem but it illustrates why all the measures we have taken have had so little effect.

Most Europeans never owned an auto until after 1960, but then their road-kill rate became enormous. France and Italy, with only a fraction of the U.S. population of people and cars, each suffered as many road fatalities as the United States. Scandinavians, traditionally hard-drinkers (interminable winters, cabin fever), developed an acute problem with drunken drivers.

They saw this as totally unacceptable social behavior; the drinking driver was considered a potential murderer. Swedes, both government and public, determined that the behavior itself must be changed ¿ not to stop people from drinking alcohol but to stop them from driving under the influence.

This they did, but not through education or pious hopes; they accomplished it through terror. They made most Swedes terribly afraid to drink and drive.

I don’t recall all the legal details, but this is the gist of it: A first-time offense brought a long-term license suspension (a year, I think). Second or third offense (I forget which), suspension for life; multiple offenses, and operating without a license, brought mandatory jail time. And I mean mandatory, applying to citizens of all ranks. You can eventually take drunks off the road, if you are willing to enforce the law and not get caught up in legal maneuvers or compassion. Arrested in Sweden, no lawyer can get you off, no judge dares sympathize. You are ruined, period.

Of course, we are different societies. Swedes are not as auto-dependent; they have better public transport, and European workers generally use carpools. It is possible to live and work without a car. Also, Sweden is more socialist and communal than America, and more law-abiding (except in one area, tax evasion), so societal mores are enforced. Finally, the legal profession has nowhere near the sufferance it has here. Convicted of something the community does not approve, it is highly unlikely that a lawyer can get you off.

Conversely, we have never been serious about controlling DWI. We pass tough laws but many do not see DWI as criminal there but for the grace of God go I, despite the fact that the inveterate drunken driver usually creates tragedy. Juries and judges are sympathetic to the poor alcoholic who can’t help it. And you may not know this most judges, after a conviction, will allow the culprit to drive to and from work.

As penalties are raised or enforced, there is also more legal resistance on the part of arrestees. A whole tribe of lawyers now works to keep drunks on the road, clogging the courts to the despair of both prosecutors and police, who are forced to make deals. Beating a DWI rap is now a game for all but the poor and honest. The tragedy is that the one-time drinker is rarely the one who kills; the average road-murderer has a slew of arrests.

These facts make police promises to crack down futile, the cooperation of purveyors hollow, and pious editorials so much ink.

This is why we read, almost every day, of someone killing himself, a family or a child although having three, five, eight, or more than a dozen citations. Don’t blame the cops. It’s our system and society that fails to put the fear of God into those who drink and drive.

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