Our Opinion: Promising approach on drunken driving

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With all the welcome emphasis being placed on the prevention of distracted driving, it's important to remember that an old, non-technologically driven nemesis is still very much with us: drunken driving. A visit to the Candlelight Vigil of Remembrance and Hope at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Pittsfield last Sunday night (Eagle, December 4) would have provided ample testimony to the tragedy and suffering an intoxicated individual can cause when he or she decides to get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

This year marked the 31st anniversary of the remembrance ceremony, organized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office, and the grim number of the Berkshire victims memorialized has continued to grow — to 52 as of this year.

Due to the efforts of organizations such as MADD, which have worked to stigmatize the crime of drunken and impaired driving, the rate of deaths resulting from OUI has dropped considerably both nationally and in Massachusetts. The political pressure such efforts wrought on the Legislature resulted in the passage of Melanie's Law in 2005, which gave prosecutors the clout to seek much harsher penalties for repeat offenders, as well as mandate the installation of ignition interlock systems in their cars. In spite of this, the yearly average of deaths due to impaired driving in the Bay State through 2016 remains at 145, or 40 percent of all traffic deaths. This is still far too high a number.

Accordingly, MADD Massachusetts has worked for several years to get an all-offender ignition interlock law passed by the Beacon Hill — a toughening of Melanie's Law that would include even first-time offenders. "Seventy-five percent of people with suspended licenses drive anyway," Mary Kate Depamphilis, MADD Massachusetts' program director, told The Eagle. "It's an honor system. What this (an all-offender ignition interlock law) would do is get them from the start. It makes sure they're sober so they can get to their obligations."

Thirty-one states have all-offender laws, according to Ms. Depamphilis, and Massachusetts is the only New England state without one. Last year, after a big push by MADD and other groups, the Senate passed such a bill, but time ran out before it could clear the House. This year, the Senate again passed the amendment, and MADD is hoping that the joint conference committee will adopt it in the final legislation.

Specifics must be worked out. If a first offender receives probation for one year, requiring the interlock device to be installed for one year would require the user to refrain from alcohol for that time period, which invites more legal penalties for even modest drinking. There must be public funding for the interlock devices because those who cannot afford them would have to use public transportation to get to work, which can pose challenges in the Berkshires.

However, the results of such laws enacted in other states have been nothing short of dramatic. In New Mexico, for example, drunken driving deaths dropped an astounding 50 percent after an all-offender law went into effect. Other states have shown improvement of at least 15 percent or more.

There is no reason why such a law shouldn't be enacted once the concerns have been addressed. Progress has been made, but as long as there are tragedies efforts to do better must continue. After all, the next victim could be any one of us.


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