Do DWI laws work?

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

"The Intoxilyzer case shows the problems with relying too much on technology," Sheridan says. "It's not a silver bullet."

PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE in the DWI debate agrees that the problem with attacking drunk driving is that drunk driving isn't the real problem. The real problem is drinking.

"To really address drunk driving, you have to address drinking," says Simon. "And that's something that's deeply ingrained in our culture. Western society has been using alcohol for 7,000 years. It's something we're very resistant to changing."

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

Simon thinks the best way to put a dent in drunk driving and all the other alcohol-related ills is to jack up the taxes on alcohol and make the industry and consumers pay for all the social services their drinks necessitate. But resistance to that plan—from the alcohol industry, from liquor stores, from bars, and from Minnesotans who like to drink—will be substantial. Change will be incremental.

"It's something we can effect, bit by bit, through education," says Jean Mulvey, the executive director of MADD in Minnesota. "Look at what happened with cigarettes. These things can change."

In the meantime, though, people like Angela will keep getting arrested. Thousands of Minnesotans a year will get DWIs on their records without ever being convicted of a crime. And the poor will face the legal maze alone.

"Drunk driving is horrible, everyone wants to get rid of it," says Travis Schwantes, the public defender. "But in doing that, we have to make sure that our process is fair. Everybody in MADD, every law enforcement officer, has a friend or relative that's been picked up on a DWI. We want our friends and family to be treated fairly. It isn't just the people who are habitually driving drunk, it's our friends and relatives. It's us."

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