The New World of California DUI Law

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How did all this come about?

There is no question that drunk driving is an increasingly serious problem in the United States and, indeed, throughout the world. There are more cars on the road than ever before; at the same time, the pressures of modern civilization continue to push the figures on alcoholism and per capita alcohol consumption ever higher. The inevitable by-product of this combination is a never-ending slaughter on the highways. And it doesn't take many front-page photographs of mangled six-year-old children to cause a public uproar and stir demands for tougher penalties for drunk drivers. The legislatures and courts of the states, being essentially political in nature, have been consistently responsive to these public outcries for crackdowns on DUI. The courts make sentences more severe; legal procedures are made "more efficient"; police departments pour money into the latest scientific methods of establishing guilt.

The increasingly severe terms of DUI legislation are based, of course, on the premise that tougher provisions will serve a deterrent effect - that is, the more harsh the law, the fewer drunk drivers. Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that only one arrest is being made for every 1,500 to 2,000 drunk drivers on the road today - too few to represent a real deterrent.

The experiences of various jurisdictions that have cracked down on drunk drivers in years past are interesting. Between 1971 and 1976, for example, the federal government spent $88 million on Alcohol Safety Action Programs (ASAP), including an experimental enforcement blitz in Virginia. This attack on DUI resulted in the yearly arrests in one area increasing from 171 to 3,000, and involved stiffer legislation and more streamlined courtroom procedures. Yet after an investigation of the results of this program in 1974 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the conclusion was reached reluctantly that there were "no reductions in drunk driving fatalities unique to the ASAP areas... It is only possible to conclude scientifically that ASAP's as large scale programs have been ineffective." Status Report, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, July 8, 1974.

One of the more publicized crackdowns occurred in Chicago between December 1970 and June 1971: A traffic court judge publicly announced that those convicted on DUI charges would receive a minimum sentence of seven days in jail and a one-year license suspension. After the six-month experiment was completed, the judge announced that holiday deaths were reduced by more than 60 percent.

A group of university statisticians decided to investigate the judge's claims. After considerable study they discovered that, contrary to his assertions, there was only a chance slight variation in holiday deaths from the preceding five years. They also noted that in nearby Milwaukee there was a much sharper drop in the rate of fatalities over the same six-month period - despite the absence of a crackdown in that city. Robertson, et al., Jail Sentences for Driving While Intoxicated in Chicago: A Judicial Action That Failed, 8(1) Law and Society Review 56 (1973).