Editorial: Balance to DUI laws needed

A new state law that mitigates the length of time a resident is without a driver’s license as a result of a drunk driving violation addresses a crucial concern: limiting the ability of that person to maintain his or her job and, in many cases, to provide an income for the families involved.
This is a classic case in which the imposition of a law to correct one social behavior has caused hardships that were not thoroughly considered.
Under current law, a first conviction of driving while intoxicated results in suspension of one’s driver’s license for 90 days; or if you’re under 21, the suspension is up to six months. A second conviction results in a suspension of 18 months.
The teetotalers and purists among us say such tough measures are needed to keep dangerous people off the roads; but our bet is those same people would be shocked to learn that a few beers at a friend’s house could cause a person to lose their job, lose the mortgage on their home, send the stay-at-home spouse with young children searching for a full-time job, while the family’s kids may suddenly find themselves growing up in poverty and a facing a life-time of struggle. No, throwing families into poverty wasn’t the objective when these penalties were proposed… it just happens to be one of the consequences.
To counter this unwanted result, Vermont’s Legislature passed Act 126 in 2010, a new state law that takes effect on July 1. The law allows certain drunk driving offenders to be issued a restricted driver’s license, or RDL, to operate a non-commercial vehicle if they pay for installation of an ignition interlock system that disables the car if they have been drinking. The good news is that it reduces the time a resident may be without a car to get to work, while still imposing stiff conditions to ensure the offender does not drink and drive during the full length of the suspension. (See story on Page 3A). For certain first-offenders the time one’s license is suspended is reduced to 30 days, rather than 90, and for three months for qualifying second-offenders.
The issue has extreme implications in Vermont precisely because we are so rural.
As Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, rightly says, “We live in an incredibly rural state. You need transportation to get to your job, to go to the store, to live your life.”
Forces that undermine a resident’s ability to work, undermine the social fabric of the state as well. And today the state has 16,000 cases of first-time offenders on the books, and another 14,000 cases of second-time offenders. That’s almost 5 percent of the population. It is worth asking whether Vermont has a statewide drinking problem, or does this statistic reflect excessive punishment for the crime committed in at least a good portion of the charges.
Act 126 is a good first step to allow those convicted to be able to retain their jobs and reconstruct their lives; but state officials might also look at changing the punishment to better fit the circumstance. The same is true with the charge of driving with a suspended license. As two law enforcement officials in today’s story admit, too many Vermonters get trapped by the DLS treadmill — the need to drive to work even though one’s driver’s license is suspended, which results in them getting caught for DLS again.
 We’re all for keeping reckless drivers — drunk or otherwise — off the roads. Excessive speed, intoxication to the point of impaired judgment or reckless endangerment because of poor judgment are all valid reasons to suspend a person’s driver’s license. But as a society, we need to differentiate between those who are reckless and those who had a few beers at a barbecue and were driving safely home or who went 50 mph in a 40 mph zone on a state highway a few times but never presented a danger to others — and construct punishment that reflects that difference to avoid causing harm of a magnitude that was never intended.
Angelo S. Lynn

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