Drunk Driving, A Solution
       by  Nicholas  Barry

On December 14th there was an article in the Saint John Evening-Times Globe about a man who had his 14th breathalyser conviction. While quite uncommon,  the court section regularly showcases  people with two, three and even four breathalyser convictions.  The article also talked about the present educational initiatives in place for drunk drivers.  Although education  may be effective for some people, it does  not get at the root of the problem.  It is time that the justice system tries something different.  Addiction is the problem, not lack of education. This province is fighting addiction with the wrong tools and obviously they are  not working.

To date, much good has been accomplished by dedicated agencies and most people are now careful about drinking and driving. Average individuals (those without an alcohol problem) now know, through the efforts of school, government and many different organizations, that drinking and driving will get them in trouble.  I notice in my friends and family a reluctance to put any alcohol in their system before driving. The Don't Drink and Drive message has been well received by a large portion of our population. The people who understand this message are rational people who comprehend the idea of consequences and have control over their the choice of  whether to drink or not.

People convicted for drunk driving, however, have a strong possibility of being either alcoholics or potential alcoholics. These are the ones getting caught and statistics show that 60% of people convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders. This is what provincial justice systems are starting to see. Our educational messages have been sent but not received. The reason for this is simple.  Alcoholism is a chronic, incurable, progressive and fatal illness. The most natural thing in the world for an alcoholic to do is drink. There is a common stereotype of what an alcoholic is in this society that is not accurate and people are misled into thinking that lack of education rather than alcoholism is the cause of all those D.W.I.s.  Unless this idea is changed, certain  people are going to keep drinking and driving.

Something else is required to make a difference.  A short course on the effects of alcohol will not do it. The people with alcohol problems are going to continue to drink and drive in the future unless some sort of serious intervention is carried out  These are the people that we are seeing in our courts now.  These are the ones frustrating the police, the court system and society in general. Until we realize that we are dealing with a unique segment of society, our campaigns will have little or no effect on the drunk driving problem.  We can teach others to report drinking drivers, increase the fines and jail time, but how do we get problem drinkers to stop drinking and driving?  This is the heart of the issue.  Problem drinkers, after having one drink have lost their choice in wether or not to continue to drink and are in  danger of getting behind the wheel yet once again.  They have lost the ability to stop drinking  which is one of the major symptoms of alcoholism. "One drink is too many, a thousand is not enough."

We must now address our efforts towards this segment of our society that is not rational as far as alcohol is concerned.  A drunk driver  who hit my brother was in this category. The man with the fourteen breathalysers is also in this group. Read the court section on any one day and you will see many others.  These people would be termed the problem drinkers or alcoholics. The major symptom of their problem is denial. Denial will tell them and everyone else that they do not have a problem. They are so convinced themselves that you believe them and chalk up their irresponsible behaviour to something else.  Individuals become physically and mentally sick trying to figure out the alcoholic. Sometimes the family members cover up problems the alcoholic causes for fear of embarrassment. Alcoholics eventually make themselves known to some government service.  Sometimes it is the hospital, occupational health, income assistance,  divorce court or other services.  In many cases, like drunk driving,  it is to the legal system.

We have been hoping that these individuals will become rational when they hear the message that we have offered to the rest of society.  The fact is  that they will never respond to the same message that we have tried to communicate to the rational portion of society. They never will. We are using the wrong tools.  These people may be rational in every aspect of their life, except about their alcohol consumption.

Forcing someone to look at their problem, especially problems that deeply affect others, is not an  inhumane idea.  Asking people to take responsibility for their actions is actually something that will eventually help them. Shielding them from the truth will have the opposite effect.  There is a large body of knowledge about alcoholism and fortunately, we do know how to treat it.  We also have the experience of some provinces, many U.S. states, and the American Department of Transportation in what they have done.  I propose that every person that gets convicted for an impaired driving charge must be assessed by a qualified alcohol and drug professional.  How would this work?  What we have is a person with a desire or need to drive again. The leverage here is the drivers license. When a drinking problem is detected and a treatment plan drawn up, the candidate is then urged to follow through with that treatment plan.  The plan will save their life and that of others if they follow it.   If they do not follow the treatment plan then the drivers licence stays suspended until they choose to follow through.   If no alcohol problem is present, then you will not have to worry about these people anyway as they have the ability to control their drinking and can make rational decisions regarding alcohol.  Any rational person will not repeat the mistake of drinking and driving even if they did make this mistake once. This process is already being carried out elsewhere in North America and it works.

Every convicted driver must be assessed for a possible problem in addition to whatever penalty the judge decides.  If we wait for the second offence to assess someone then we are waiting too long and are endangering more lives.  If we complicate the legislation then few will understand it, it will not be cost effective nor will it be worthwhile or accepted.  It must be simple.

An effective, modern and popular D.W.I. assessment procedure could be drawn up using the experience of other areas while keeping in mind our own uniqueness.  Assessing all impaired drivers would  help society by making the roads safe for everyone and by decreasing the staggering social costs of alcoholism.   The police could concentrate on other things.  There would be more room in jails. Families and  government services would not have to deal with the staggering social problems created by these drinkers and the aftermath of their victims.

It is estimated that one problem drinker affects 36 other people.  By helping one person we are really helping many others. It is possible that if people were convinced that a person convicted of drunk driving would actually get help, then maybe there would be more reporting.  A family member could report that the person was driving while drunk and know that they would receive help.  Motorists would report if too he or she believed that this would make a difference.  Most people are decent in this regard.

We hear quite a bit about the "War on Drugs" in North America  but the most dangerous drug of all is still largely unaddressed.  What drug causes more violence, automobile deaths, suicides, depression and mental health admissions, lost work, poor performance, homelessness and broken families but the drug alcohol?    Let's start treating drunk driving  for what it is -a crime with addiction as the cause.  A two hour course, a smile  and a "be a good boy now" will not stop the problem drinker from driving.  People with a drunk driving convictions have shown themselves as people who are at great risk of causing death and destruction with a dangerous weapon, the automobile.   There is no reason to continue to let someone drive on our roads with a serious illness that could potentially cause death unless they are prepared to make some changes to their lives.  Policies must be put in place that will force the drunk driver to look at their drinking problem. We must  make them want to do something about it instead of collectively ignoring it.  Do we want people on our roads with 14 previous DWI convictions?  Let's do all we can to address the problem before first offenders turn into repeat offenders and kill you or a member of your family.

Nicholas Barry  is a clinical social worker and a certified alcohol and drug counsellor working in  Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

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