Often unlicensed and with multiple DUIs, high-risk drivers threaten everyone on the road. What can be done to stop repeat offenders?
On April 20, 2002, a drunk driver with nine counts of driving while intoxicated and a revoked license changed Dorothy Fisher’s life forever. Her husband of 18 years, David Fisher, a Canton, N.C., trucker, was headed home with a flatbed load of steel on I-40. About 5:40 p.m. at Exit 170, 39-year-old Michael Robert Harmon, driving a gold Ford Taurus, failed to yield as he merged onto the interstate and plowed into Fisher’s flatbed. Feeling the impact, Fisher swerved to avoid entrapping the Taurus and headed toward the median, into oncoming traffic. At the last minute, witnesses say, the 2-million-mile accident-free driver made a conscious decision. Rather than risk the lives of other motorists, including the man who hit him, he changed direction, crashed through a guardrail and careened down a steep ravine.
Harmon fled the scene on foot, leaving Fisher “like a possum, like something he’d hit, and he just ran off,” Dorothy Fisher says. Crushed under 80,000 pounds of steel, Fisher died within minutes. Harmon was later charged with felony hit and run, misdemeanor death by vehicle and driving while license revoked.
Despite media portrayals of truckers as reckless substance abusers, in reality, hard-core drunk drivers like Harmon endanger far more lives. Repeat offenders were to blame in 57 percent of alcohol-related fatalities in the nation in 2001, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Only 1 percent of truckers involved in fatal crashes were intoxicated – compared to 23 percent of car drivers – and only 0.9 percent had a previous DUI conviction, according to NHTSA.
In many cases, repeat offenders like Harmon also drive without valid licenses; the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety calls such motorists “among the worst drivers on the road.” It estimates that 20 percent of all fatal crashes in the U.S. involved at least one driver who lacked a valid license. Not surprising, considering two-thirds of drivers with suspended licenses continue to drive.
Although law enforcement and safety advocates have made some progress in this area, unlicensed drivers and other repeat offenders – often called high-risk drivers – continue to terrorize our highways. In fact, repeat offenders and drivers with a blood alcohol content above 0.15 involved in alcohol-related fatalities have both been increasing since 1997, according to NHTSA. At the heart of the problem, experts say, are inconsistent laws and sentencing, lax enforcement, archaic record systems and overburdened courts and motor vehicle departments.
“Current state laws and procedures that address high-risk drivers are complex, inconsistent and riddled with loopholes,” says Susan Pikrallidas, AAA vice president of public affairs. “The screening instruments used to evaluate DUI offenders do a lousy job of identifying problem drinkers. As a result, many chronic drinkers are not found and treated. Far too often, they return to our highways with deadly consequences.”
That’s a fact Dorothy Fisher knows all too well. “I didn’t really realize what a joke the laws were until David got killed,” she says of Michael Robert Harmon’s long record of DUI convictions. “If it’s your first offense, you should do some jail time. If you hit someone and you’re drunk, it should be manslaughter.”
Safety advocates, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have long pushed for tougher laws. States need laws that lower the BAC level for repeat offenders to 0.05 or 0.02 – far lower than current BAC levels (.08 in most states) for all drivers, says Wendy Hamilton, MADD president. In Maine, fatal car crashes involving repeat offenders dropped by 25 percent over six years after the state reduced its BAC limit from 0.10 to 0.05 for convicted offenders. Over the same period, fatal crashes involving repeat offenders in the rest of New England increased 46 percent.
In 1998, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century established a new Federal program to encourage states to get tough on repeat offenders. (Legislation has recently been introduced that would further strengthen drunk driving provisions.) Since then, most states have passed laws that suspend or revoke the licenses of repeat offenders, impound or immobilize their vehicles, diagnose and treat alcohol abuse and impose minimum imprisonment or community service sentences.
Such laws work. In states with mandatory licensing sanctions, for example, where licenses are taken before conviction when a driver fails or refuses testing, alcohol-related fatalities have dropped between 6 percent and 9 percent. A study of Maryland repeat offenders who used interlock devices, which prevent vehicles from starting if the driver’s BAC is above a certain level, found they were 65 percent less likely to return to drinking and driving. And repeat offenders who took part in a Milwaukee program that monitors alcohol-related behavior were 50 percent less likely to drink and drive.
Some states hit repeat offenders in the pocketbook. Texas, which leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic deaths, passed a law in August that will charge repeat DUI offenders up to $6,000 in surcharges over three years. Drivers who refuse to pay will lose their licenses.
Programs that combine treatment with punishment are also gaining ground. The Bernalillo County New Mexico Metro Court’s DWI/Drug Court Program reaches substance abusers through a nine-month voluntary program. It includes meetings with a probation officer, substance abuse counseling, random testing, attending Victim Impact Panels and community service. Since its inception, hundreds of impaired driving offenders have participated in the program.
Despite such progress, our nation’s overburdened court system remains a roadblock to getting repeat offenders off the highways, experts say. Many courts lack good record systems for identifying prior offenses. Too often, plea bargains reduce DUI charges to non-alcohol offenses and judges are given too much discretion in sentencing. A judge in Norfolk, Va., for example, reduced to reckless driving two out of every three DUI convictions he heard on appeal over a four-year period, according to the Virginian-Pilot. Seventeen were repeat offenders.
Of those who are convicted, nearly half are returned to court for failing to comply with the terms of their sentence, according to a study released in July by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. The 890 probation and parole officers who participated in the study say the problem is a combination of non-compliance with court orders, overwhelming caseloads and conflict between the goals of enforcement and rehabilitation.
“Until offenders can be adequately monitored and supervised, and penalties enforced, public safety cannot be ensured, and there is little hope that their behavior problems will be dealt with,” says Herb Simpson, TIRF’s president and CEO.
Ten-time DUI offender Milton Powell Sims is a case in point. Sims, who was released from a Shelby County, Ala., work-release program under a doctor’s care, was serving an 18-month sentence on a felony conviction of driving under the influence. While being sought for failing to report back, he caused a fatal accident and was charged with felony DUI and murder.
For such hard-core offenders, typical sanctions are not tough enough, experts say. It took mandatory jail time, for instance, to finally get repeat offender Homer Lamar Ballard of Alabama off the road. For more than 20 years, Ballard was fined, had his license revoked, jailed and even ordered to undergo mental health treatment, reported The Mobile Register. He racked up 26 DUI convictions before finally being sentenced to the maximum of 10 years in prison. Alabama’s habitual offender law allows for sentences up to life in prison on a fourth felony conviction, but exempts felony DUI.
A new sentencing alternative championed in Minnesota by Isanti County District Judge James Dehn splits jail terms into three or more periods with probation terms in between. Called staggered sentencing, this option lets judges pardon offenders from upcoming jail terms if the offender proves he has stayed sober. A key component of the program is remote electronic alcohol monitoring, which checks convicted drunk drivers’ alcohol consumption over a specially equipped phone several times per day.
In the past five years, the re-offense rate of repeat offenders on this program was cut by 50 percent, says Jim Cleary, legislative analyst for the Minnesota House of Representatives. It works, Cleary says, because it provides a structured environment for offenders. “It presumes that person is going to jail unless he can keep his (sobriety) proof up, whereas traditional probation presumes that he’s not going to jail unless he screws up,” he says.
But many experts argue that jail time and other sanctions fail to address the real problem: alcoholism. Studies estimate up to 75 percent of DUI offenders have serious alcohol problems. “There are people for whom one drink is too many and 100 is not enough,” says Michael Martone, a Troy, Mich., judge who uses innovative sentencing to counteract repeat offenders. “What you have to do is try to correct that addiction. Punishment isn’t going to do it. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t pay for their crime, but it’s a delicate balancing act.”
A 2001 study in North Carolina found offenders who completed a treatment program were 64 percent less likely to have another drunk driving offense. Treatment options include classroom discussions, participation in groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, outpatient counseling and long-term residential programs.
Heeding the advice of the 12-step program many drunk drivers attend, Dorothy Fisher, who lost her trucker husband to a drunk driver, simply takes one day at a time. She is involved in MADD and a N.C. program called Booze It and Lose It, which targets drunk drivers. She recently attended a ceremony dedicating one of North Carolina’s breath alcohol testing buses – called BATMobiles – to her husband David, “because the highway patrol saw him as a hero,” she says.
The man who took her husband’s life, Michael Robert Harmon, is serving 11 years of real time and must pay Dorothy Fisher $10,000 in restitution, a small price for the life of a beloved husband, father and friend. “I’d like to think he’s trying to change his way,” Dorothy says of Harmon. “I have to forgive him because I told my girls that if we didn’t, then David giving his life to save other lives meant nothing.”
GETTING TOUGH ON REPEATERS
State laws that address the problem of repeat intoxicated drivers fall into four general categories:
Licensing sanctions. Most states suspend or revoke the license of repeat offenders for a longer period than they do for first offenders. As of last year, 40 states and the District of Columbia had adopted some form of revocation.
Vehicle sanctions. Some states impound or immobilize the vehicles of repeat offenders. Others require installation of an ignition interlock system on the offender’s vehicle. Such systems prevent the vehicle from starting if the driver’s blood alcohol concentration is above a pre-determined threshold.
Alcohol abuse treatment. Some states require repeat offenders to be examined to determine their degree of alcohol abuse and/or to undergo appropriate treatment.
Mandatory sentencing. Most states impose a mandatory minimum imprisonment and/or a community service sentence on repeat offenders.
Since September, judges in the First Judicial Court of Florida can require repeat offenders to pay a $50 fee and place bumper stickers on their cars that ask: “How’s my driving? … The judge wants to know!!!” Developed by the I Saw You Safety and Scholarship Foundation, the program is based on one that targets teen drivers and on the trucking industry’s “How’s my driving?” campaign.
“We know that insurance companies made professional truckers put the stickers on their trucks, and it reduced accidents,” says David Richbourg, director of marketing and media relations for the foundation. When Mothers Against Drunk Driving asked the foundation to develop a similar program for drunk drivers, it was happy to oblige. “We’re hoping this will be enough of a deterrent that it will stop people from doing it,” he says.
The stickers include an identification number for each driver and a toll-free phone number. The foundation monitors calls from the public and contacts law enforcement and the offender’s probation officer. In Florida, the sticker goes on every vehicle that is titled, leased or under the control of a convicted drunk driver. “We’re hoping families will come together and encourage each other not to drive impaired,” Richbourg says.
The program interfaces with Florida’s Smart Cop database to let law enforcement know who is enrolled. “If they are picked up for anything – a tail light out – and the car doesn’t have the decal on it, that’s a violation of probation and boom, they go to jail,” Richbourg says.
The program, which is also being used in Michigan, has generated interest outside of Florida. Judges and legislators in Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico, California and Indiana have expressed interest. Proceeds from the program will be used to provide $5,000 scholarships to survivors of drunk driving accidents.
Other states have tried similar tactics to keep tabs on high-risk motorists. Minnesota, for example, issues special license plates to convicted drunk drivers with the letters “WX” or “WY” in the first two positions of the plate number. This enables a family member with a valid driver’s license to still use the vehicle, while giving police officers probable cause to stop the vehicle simply because it displays the special sticker or plate.