Do DWI laws work?

One in seven Minnesotans has a drunk driving conviction. Are we any safer?

ANGELA WAS ARRESTED for waiting in her car.

It was a hot night last summer, and she had gone out drinking in New Hope with two of her friends. She'd driven to the bar, but by the end of the night, she knew she'd had too much to drink. After racking up three DWI offenses in her early 20s, Angela was on the straight and narrow. She didn't want to get another. She wanted to be responsible.

Angela isn't her real name, but she doesn't want to reveal her identity because admitting to drunk driving is embarrassing. "There's a stigma to it," she says. "I don't want people at work to know that about me."

Stephen Simon, founder of the DWI Task Force, says the state needs more enforcement
Nick Vlcek
Stephen Simon, founder of the DWI Task Force, says the state needs more enforcement

So instead of driving home, Angela and her friends called a taxi. While they were waiting, they sat in her parked car, smoking cigarettes and talking about music.

Big mistake. Within a few minutes, a policeman was rapping at her window, asking her to step out of the car and take a field sobriety test. She failed. She took the breath test, and failed that too, blowing a .10.

"I kept explaining, 'I'm not driving, we're not going anywhere, we're waiting for a taxi, he'll be here any minute,'" Angela says.

But it didn't matter. She was over the legal limit while behind the wheel. Under the "physical control" provision of Minnesota's DWI law, she was guilty. As the cab pulled up to take her friends home, she was hauled away to be booked for her fourth DWI, a felony offense that can carry up to seven years in prison.

Welcome to the world of drunk driving enforcement in Minnesota. In the state law books, the first-degree murder statute takes up three quarters of a page; the section on drunk driving takes up 40 pages. With more than 100 people killed and thousands injured by drunk driving every year in the state, no one feels sorry for the reckless people who get behind the wheel when they shouldn't.

But there are reasons to question whether the current strategy of busting as many people as possible and piling on the punishment is working. The legal system is choked with impaired driving cases. Advocates for the poor say the system hits them especially hard. More and more Minnesotans are carrying a scarlet DWI in their files, paying several times the normal insurance premiums, and struggling to figure out how they're going to get to work without a license.

The costs of the war on drunk driving are real. So is it working?

DWI activists say it is, and point to a 38 percent drop in the number of alcohol-related fatalities on Minnesota roads in the last 25 years. But that statistic doesn't tell the whole story. Non-alcohol-related fatalities have also been steadily dropping for years, the result of improved road conditions, safer cars, and the adoption of seatbelts and airbags. Twenty-five years ago, more than 600 people died in crashes in Minnesota. In 2008, the last year for which figures are available, that number was down to 455—a 25 percent drop. The fact is, when you look at the proportion of traffic deaths and injuries in the state that can be blamed on alcohol, the numbers have hardly budged in the last 10 years, stubbornly sticking between 30 and 40 percent. By this measurement, drunk driving is as much of a problem as ever.

For those who do get caught, the consequences are severe. First-time offenders lose their licenses for 90 days. In the metro area, taxis and public transportation make this an inconvenience at worst. But in most of the state, getting to work, to the grocery store, or to pick up the kids at preschool is impossible if you don't have a car. After the suspension is over, drivers have to pay a $700 reinstatement fee. Then they can also expect their insurance premiums to go up by a factor of three or four.

For more than a decade, Minnesota cops have been handing out DWIs at the rate of more than 30,000 a year. Over time, all those write-ups pile up. Nearly one in seven drivers in Minnesota has a DWI on his or her record. In our effort to make drunk driving unacceptable, we may be in danger of doing the opposite. If nearly everyone knows someone with a DWI, how much stigma does it carry?

NOT SO LONG ago, Minnesota was a drunk driver's paradise. As late as 1959, it was perfectly legal to keep an open handle of vodka between your legs as you drove down the highway. Even if you were pulled over on suspicion of being drunk, you could refuse to take a blood-alcohol test, effectively denying the cops the evidence they would need to charge you.

The result, as you might expect, was a bloodbath of alcohol-related crashes.

"We were literally killing 300 people a year in Minnesota. And for every person killed, there were about 20 injured," says Steve Simon, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and an anti-drunk-driving crusader. "It was a serious, serious public health problem."

In the 1960s, the state decided it needed to get tough on drunk driving. It passed the Implied Consent Law, which said that when you get your license and drive on Minnesota roads, you've implicitly agreed to be tested if the police think it's warranted. If you refused a test, you lost your license for six months. The Legislature also made it much easier to prove drunkenness, with a law decreeing that if your blood alcohol concentration was over .10 percent you were intoxicated, even if you weren't obviously impaired.

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