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Directions in Highway Safety, Fall 2007 Cover Page Download Newsletter pdf
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Fall 2007 | Vol. 10 | No. 3

Senate Hearing Examines Effectiveness of Federal Drunk Driving Programs

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On October 25, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security, and Water Quality held a hearing on the effectiveness of federal drunk driving programs. Senators attending were Committee Chair Boxer (D-CA), Klobuchar (D-MN), Subcommittee Chair Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Subcommittee Ranking Minority Member Vitter (R-LA).

In his opening statement, Lautenberg strongly defended current drunk driving laws and indicated he would fight to retain and strengthen them, particularly the 21 drinking age law. He lamented that more states don't have tougher laws for repeat drunk drivers and some states allow citizens to refuse to take a blood-alcohol test after a fatal crash. Lautenberg stated "when it comes to better laws, sanctions on states work." He cited the success Congress had in getting every state to enact .08 as an example.

Ranking Minority Member Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) was not able to attend the hearing, but he did release a statement. Inhofe noted that when he chaired the Committee, safety was a priority, particularly in the development of SAFETEA. He highlighted the core safety program that was implemented in the last reauthorization and that he hoped hearings would be scheduled to review how well that program is functioning.

Senator Inhofe noted that while he supports efforts to reduce drunk driving, he has and will continue to oppose federal mandates or sanctions. According to Inhofe, "The closer government is to the people, the better the results." Senator Inhofe noted that TEA-21 directed states to implement a one-year hard suspension for repeat offenders, using the threat of reduced highway funds if they failed to comply. According to the Senator, the "one size fits all federal prescription had the effect of derailing efforts to develop interlock technologies, and handicapped states' ability to put in place their own effective drunk driving laws."

U.S. DOT Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel also testified. He said NHTSA and the states need a greater sense of urgency in dealing with drunk driving. While NHTSA is not able to mandate performance measures, Scovel said it can and should provide leadership and work with states to modify performance measures. He remarked that states do want to set reasonable performance measures but said the performance measures need to be more consistent. He twice said NHTSA needs to work with state partners better and urged NHTSA to work closely with GHSA on this issue. NHTSA had indicated it will take three years to implement better performance measures, but Scovel said his office thinks that timeframe needs to be moved up.

Also testifying was the Honorable Michael R. Fields, Presiding Judge from the Harris County, Texas Criminal Court of Law #14. Judge Fields discussed the key role the judiciary plays in the effort to reduce drunk driving. He reported that drunk driving cases are among the most complicated in terms of legal and evidentiary issues and said hard core drunk driving cases are often especially challenging.

Capitol Building

Judge Fields emphasized that there is not just one solution to dealing with drunk drivers. He said that judges require greater flexibility in sentencing options. He cited examples with hardcore offenders, saying that research has shown that alternative sentencing methods, tailored to each offender, can have a profound effect on an offender's ability to avoid re-offending. By contrast, drunk driving sentences that do not take past criminal history and habits into consideration may actually contribute to recidivism.

Senator Boxer was very vocal and demonstrated this is an issue about which she cares deeply. She said it was clear some states are doing better than others. While California has generally strong laws, she wants the state to pass interlock legislation for all offenders and will contact the Governor on this matter. She urged NHTSA and NTSB to hold a summit on the drunk driving problem. She wants it to be broad and very visible and hopes the President and First Lady will attend.

Senator Boxer asked what the Senate could do to encourage progress in reauthorization. MADD Chief Executive Officer Chuck Hurley responded that Congress should do three things:

Throughout the hearing, there was great interest in interlocks. Senator Vitter was particularly clear that these were a practical and necessary solution.

GHSA submitted a statement for the Subcommittee, suggesting potential solutions such as: a comprehensive plan that touches on all aspects of impaired driving (strong laws, enforcement, adjudication and technology); technical corrections for the 164 and 154 programs; and opposition to any effort to weaken the underage drinking law. GHSA also discouraged the use of new sanctions and suggested using incentives to strengthen the penalties for test refusal and require more BAC testing for dead and surviving drivers.

Download witness testimony or view the archived webcast at: www.tinyurl.com/2ws6ne. GHSA's statement is at www.ghsa.org/html/issues/pdf/2007.10.25.EPW.testimony.pdf.