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Bob Carroll
Bob Carroll
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Murder Charges For DUI Deaths?

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Is it time to call a death caused by drunk driving a murder? That is the question raised by the New York Times. No matter what the answer, it is time to reinvigorate the campaign to reduce driving under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol, a Car and a Fatality. Is It Murder?

DRUNKEN drivers who kill people with their vehicles are almost never charged with murder.

Even the usual terms of criminal prosecution, vehicular manslaughter or reckless homicide, which carry far lesser degrees of punishment, are felony charges that until 25 years ago were only lightly used by prosecutors.

Times have changed. “Reckless homicide” and then “manslaughter” became common charges brought against drunken drivers after advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving began campaigning in the early 1980’s. But now even those terms are considered gentle euphemisms by some advocates against drunken driving — as in, words that shelter people from looking too closely at the ugliest of realities.

Will murder charges help deter drunken driving? Will juries convict these drivers, knowing that they will be in prison for a long time? And is it fair?

Since the early 1980’s, when grassroots groups like MADD began a campaign against drunken driving, the rate of traffic fatalities linked to alcohol has dropped by about half, according to federal highway statistics.

But progress has stalled, said Chuck Hurley, chief executive of MADD. “The numbers have not moved substantially in 10 years,” he said. “The country has gotten used to MADD, and gotten used to increased law enforcement, and the result is that every month in this country another 1,000 families get a knock on the door with very bad news because of drinking and driving.”

But he added: “Is every drunk driver who kills someone a murderer? “We don’t advocate that.”Instead, MADD has campaigned successfully to lower the legal blood-alcohol level for drivers to .08 from .10 — now the standard in every state. Ignition-interlock devices, which prevent drunken drivers from starting their cars, have been installed in the vehicles of about 100,000 people serving probation for drunken driving offenses around the country, he said.

My partners and I continue to see terrible injuries and deaths caused by drunk drivers in Florida. And, we see bizarre and irrational conduct of drinkers who repeatedly take risks to drink longer and harder before attempting to drive home. In the Tampa Bay area one of our counties, Hillsborough, has a later closing time for bars and taverns than an adjacent county, Pinellas. After the call is made for last drinks, a large number of bar patrons in Pinellas County drive themselves hurriedly to the nearest open bar in Hillsborough County on a regular basis.