For the fourth year in a row, Louisiana is number one. That’s right! Once again, the Bayou State has been named as the home of the worst drivers in America.
One of the major causes of such ranking is Louisiana’s tolerance for drunk drivers. Louisiana has always been a “free and easy” state when it comes to drinking and driving. Visitors are dumbfounded when they see drive through Daiquiri shops across the state. And the results shouldn’t be surprising. Fifty-three per cent of all serious injuries and highway deaths involve a drunk driver. So why hasn’t there been more outrage and should there tougher laws on the books?
Actually, Louisiana has some of the toughest DWI laws in the country. For a third offence DWI there is no discretion for judges. An offender with three convictions faces a mandatory sentence of two years in jail. And get this – the party convicted is supposed to have their car seized and sold out from under them. Have a mortgage? Tough luck. Should have thought about that before you went drinking and got behind the wheel.
In 1996, as insurance commissioner, I wrote the current law. But have you ever known of a third offender DWI having his or her car taken off the road and sold -- or the offender actually serving two years jail time with no suspended sentence? These are rare occurrences, unless someone else is killed in a collision with the drunk driver.
The problem is one of enforcement. Many judges and prosecutors ignore the law. Often the DWI charge is reduced to careless and reckless driving. And compounding this problem is that computer information systems in one parish are unable to communicate with systems in another parish, so a prosecutor is not aware of previous convictions.
A driver in the Baton Rouge area was recently charged with his 7th DWI. That’s seven DWI charges. Where were the red flags at three, or four or five or six? How could a guy like this slip through the cracks?
Many states have enacted new laws that cut little slack for drunk drivers. In Virginia, accused drunk drivers who fail breath tests when stopped by police will have their licenses suspended immediately, even before they are tried in court. New Mexico requires an “ignition interlock” for every convicted drunk driver, even on the first offense. No exceptions.
In New York, tough new steps have been taken to curb a major drunk driving problem. Drivers there who have been convicted of being drunk while carrying passengers 15 years or younger face up to four years in prison, even when there is no wreck involved. And how’s this for a tough sanction: A Long Island, New York jury recently convicted a drunk driver of murder for killing two people in a head-on collision. The district attorney who brought the charges had been elected on a “take no prisoners” approach to drunk drivers.
Was this too tough a penalty? Not according to the mother of one of the female victims. She used no euphemisms in describing the damage done. “As I crawled out of the car, the only thing that was left of Kate was her head. This was murder and no different from carrying a loaded gun around, pointing it at people and having a few shots go off killing them.” The prosecutor made no bones about how she will act in dealing with drunk driving deaths. ”We hope that his verdict sends a message that if you drink and drive and kill somebody, you will be prosecuted for murder.”
For far too long, having a few drinks then driving home has been no big deal in Louisiana. To many drivers, it is still a normal way of life. Hopefully, much stiffer sentences handed down by tough Louisiana judges, who will enforce the strong laws already on the books, will go a long way in reducing too many pointless and unwarranted deaths.