So­lu­tion must in­clude treat­ment

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Driv­ing while in­tox­i­cated is right up there near the top of the list of per­pet­ual prob­lems that our law­mak­ers “solve” ev­ery so of­ten. The last swipe at it was a get-tough ap­proach. The next one should in­clude a get-treat­ment ap­proach.

The num­bers, as usual, are dis­tress­ing. Texas DWI deaths have dropped slightly in re­cent years, but we re­main No. 1 in that sad statis­tic. Last year, 1,269 peo­ple died in DWI-re­lated wrecks in the state.

It’s time, the Se­nate Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Com­mit­tee con­cluded at a Thurs­day hear­ing, to con­sider changes. The sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to Chair­man John Whit­mire, DHous­ton, is bro­ken.

Here’s an idea: How about a sys­tem in which drunken driv­ers pay to sup­port trauma care. Good idea, isn’t it? Yeah, that’s what law­mak­ers thought when they en­acted it in 2003. The $3,000 sur­charge is levied on top of fines and court costs. A sec­ond con­vic­tion car­ries a $4,500 sur­charge.

DWI of­fend­ers are about $54 mil­lion be­hind in pay­ments.

The ham­mer in that pro­gram was sup­posed to have been bar­ring driver’s li­cense re­newal for of­fend­ers be­hind in pay­ments. An­other good idea in prac­tice that, be­cause of folks’ will­ing­ness to drive with­out li­censes or in­surance, of­ten is more prob­lem than so­lu­tion.

Whit­mire’s com­mit­tee fielded a va­ri­ety of pro­pos­als, all wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion. But, as Austin Po­lice Chief Art Acevedo tes­ti­fied, the best ap­proach to DWI is to pre­vent it. Acevedo, who fa­vors so­bri­ety check­points and manda­tory blood tests for sus­pected drunken driv­ers, said treat­ment pro­grams for first-time of­fend­ers should be part of any DWI law re­vi­sions.

“We are wait­ing way too long to in­ter­vene. If we can’t in­ter­vene in peo­ple’s lives, we can’t change their be­hav­ior,” Acevedo said, not­ing that in­ter­ven­tion must “start with the first ar­rest.”

It’s an un­avoid­able truth that that first ar­rest most likely does not co­in­cide with the first drunken-driv­ing episode.

Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ing is among the groups back­ing so­bri­ety check­points and ig­ni­tion in­ter­lock sys­tems that would pre­vent DWI of­fend­ers from fir­ing up their ve­hi­cles if they are drunk.

So­bri­ety check­points are touchy. Too in­tru­sive, some say, but 39 states use them. Texas sen­a­tors ap­proved the con­cept last year, but the mea­sure died in the House.

Is it un­fair to ran­domly stop ve­hi­cles to see whether driv­ers are im­paired? That’s a tough call, but is it any more un­fair than re­quir­ing ev­ery­body to go through a metal de­tec­tor at the air­port? We want to hear more dis­cus­sion on this one.

But we, like sev­eral sen­a­tors at the hear­ing, are sure of one thing: Treat­ment — in con­cert with ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment and penalty — must be part of the pro­gram.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amar­illo, told col­leagues that the get-tough ap­proach doesn’t get us where we want to go.

“Right now, we take some­one off the streets with a dis­ease and put then in prison for five years. When they get out, they still have the dis­ease (and) we have a drunk driver with a record,” he said.

“The ques­tion is, when do the peo­ple of the state pay more for an of­fense than the per­son who com­mit­ted it?” he asked, pin­point­ing the cur­rent law’s short­com­ings.

Pun­ish­ment is an ex post facto strat­egy. Pun­ish­ment with treat­ment might pre­vent an­other round of pun­ish­ment, as well as DWI’s heart-wrench­ing col­lat­eral dam­age.

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