Friday, November 9, 2007

First-Time Offenders Cause Most Alcohol-Related Deaths, Injuries

Those who study Wisconsin drunken driving issues said that chronic, repeat drunken drivers are a significant but small part of the overall problem.

Officials said that repeat offenders don't kill or injure most of the people involved in alcohol-related crashes. Experts said that to really cut down on injury and death on Wisconsin roads, we must address the most frequent offender: the regular citizen who has absolutely no drunken driving background.

One such man warned that if people don't think they will kill people while driving drunk, they should think again.

"I was on my way up north and I had been drinking. I drank and drove in the car, and I drifted across the center line of the road, and I hit another car head on," said John Luznicky. "The woman in that car, her name was Sharon Warner. She was 34 years old. She had a little boy and a little girl and she died instantly."

Luznicky said it is difficult to describe his thoughts after the crash.

"I don't know how to explain that feeling. It's a numbness; it's a shock. It's despair, hopelessness; it's helplessness," Luznicky said. "I don't know what the words are. I don't know if there are words to describe that feeling."

Luznicky's blood-alcohol level was 0.14 after the crash. The legal limit to operate a motor vehicle is 0.08 in Wisconsin.

It was the first time he had been arrested on drunken driving charges.

"I never thought it was going be me. I never thought it was going to be me. I thought it was going to be the other guy," Luznicky said. "I didn't think I was drunk. I didn't think was too impaired too drive. Was I? Oh, yeah, you bet. But did I know that was going to happen? No."

Experts said the people with no prior drunken driving history, not repeat drunken drivers, kill and injure the vast majority of people involved in alcohol-related crashes.

"And you hear the stories about the repeat driver and you hear the stores about people doing all these other things and you just think it's going to be somebody else, just not going to be me. But I'm here today to tell you it is me. It was me. I did what I did, and I've got to live with that," Luznicky said.

"The problem is people who drive drunk, and yes, the people who are ninth and tenth offenders. That's very offensive to us because we can't understand it. But they're just part of the big problem, and it's the overarching problem that will kill," said Nina Emerson, of the Resource Center for Impaired Driving at University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.

Luznicky was married with four children when he was convicted of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle in 2001.

"I went to the school plays. I went to the parent-teacher conferences. I go to church. I owned a business. I didn't hang out at the bars -- that wasn't what I did. But I drank and I did drive and one woman had to pay for that with her life," Luznicky said. "I've been able to figure out how to live with it. I've been able to figure out how to make peace with it. But it doesn't go away."

"A woman's dead and there's two kids who don't have a mom because of me, because of what I did, and I've got to live with that," Luznicky said. "I mean, the damage is tremendous, absolutely huge. You can't begin to fathom how far it goes."

For more than five years, Luznicky has been speaking to anyone who would listen. He promised the victim's family that he would.

"I promised I would do whatever I could to try to prevent this from happening to somebody else, and that's what I'll try to do," Luznicky said.

Luznicky said he has to live with the hurt he caused his own family as well. His wife came upon the fatal crash scene as he was being taken away in an ambulance. Luznicky, a former landscaper, is now an alcohol and drug abuse counselor.

Many might think they can drink and still make it home, but statistics show that is a dangerous misconception, WISC-TV reported. One Department of Transportation study looked at more than 10,450 drivers over 12 years. All the drivers were drinking and in a crash that resulted in one or more deaths or incapacitating injuries.

The study found that three out of four drivers had no prior convictions for operating while intoxicated or related traffic offenses on their driving records.

So what can be done to combat the problem of drunken driving on Wisconsin's roads?

Experts said that when it comes to penalties for a first drunken driving offense, the humiliation of getting arrested works for the vast majority of people and they don't do it again.

But experts pointed to a couple of issues for debate when it comes to deterring people altogether.

They said one possibility would be for Wisconsin to criminalize a first-time operating while intoxicated offense. Wisconsin is the only state in which it is still a civil offense.

First-time offenders are fined between $150 to $300, given a $355 surcharge, a six-to-nine month license suspension and a mandatory alcohol assessment.

But even those civil penalties are watered down for drivers who are prosecuted under the Prohibited Alcohol Concentration Law. Drivers who have a blood-alcohol level between 0.08 and 0.99 lose their license for a time and pay a flat $250 fine.

"It just makes it an absolute joke that somebody could be stopped, arrested, convicted of OWI and just because they're 0.09, which is still above the legal limit, that they pay $250 and that's it. They pay $250. That's it," Emerson said.

Emerson and Dane County prosecutors said that one factor contributing to the problem is that alcohol is so widely accepted and promoted in Wisconsin. But they said that's not a problem as long as people act responsibly. They said people should make a plan for how they are going to get home before they go out drinking.

source: WISC Madison

No comments: