Maryland Drunk Driving Laws: Change We Need

The Baltimore Sun has written another story about the tragic death of a young woman who was a junior at Johns Hopkins and was killed by a drunk driver who has had nine previous drunk driving convictions.

I’ve avoiding writing about this topic because I really could not think of anything meaningful to add. We all get it. The drunk driver is the bad guy. The young woman who was killed had tons of potential that will never be filled on this Earth. Our judicial system let us down. We all get it. Do we need yet another lawyer with a blog post restating the manifestly obvious?

But why did our judicial system let us down? The laws we have are a function of political pressure we give to our politicians. Why do we allow people with nine drunk driving convictions to stay out of jail? Maryland law let us down more than the judicial system in this case.

How many people in Maryland do you think have more than three drunk driving convictions? Take a guess. I’ll provide the answer after the jump to give you a chance to think about it.

What did you guess? Dan Rodericks reported what I believe is an incredible statistic: 25,120 Marylanders had three or more convictions for driving while intoxicated as of April 2008.

How do we develop the will to toughen our drunk driving laws? Many of us know otherwise decent people who – at least rarely – drink and drive. Do we really want to get too extreme with mangling these people’s lives? So far, society has said no. But if we come down harder on these 25,000 strong, recidivist Maryland drunk drivers, we are going to save a lot of innocent lives. That would seem to be a deal worth making.

Dan Roderick’s article makes good points about why judges are often lenient with drunk drivers. I think there is another element at play here as well. I’ve been reading David Ball and Don Keenan’s Reptile, a book that provides insight on the thinking and motivation of jurors in personal injury cases. (This book will be the subject of many future blog posts.) At the risk of oversimplifying, the premise of the book is that jurors make decisions consistent with their subconscious survival instincts. I think judges have the same instincts. They are like the rest of us. Many know friends, children or even they themselves, who, at some point in the their lives, have gotten intoxicated and gotten behind the wheel of a car. Accordingly, the survival instinct steps in and cuts drunk drivers a break because they would want a break themselves.

But judges are also going to follow the law, which is why we need to develop the societal will to take a strong stand against recidivist drunk drivers and make laws with real teeth. Look, I’m a liberal, I hate sticking people who might otherwise be good, decent people in jail for a crime that may be attributable in part to a disease (alcoholism). Yet when I compare temporarily wrecking the life of a recidivist drunk driver versus the risk they pose to my children when they are on the roadway, it seems like a no-brainer that the fear of real jail time (and heavy monetary fines) is the only path.

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