Drunk driving charges against St. Louis Rams star Leonard Little last week highlighted the fact that despite nearly two decades of public education and laws designed to deter drunken driving, the problem is getting worse. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says federal data show that drunk drivers are a bigger menace today than any time since the mid-1990s. “Something that should still be decreasing is increasing,” said Mike Boland of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in St. Louis. “Most people assume things have been getting better. They’re not.”
A major contributor to dangerous roads is the chronic drunken driver – or “persistent offender.” That’s the term in the law used to charge Little, 29, with a felony form of drunken driving. He had pleaded guilty of involuntary manslaughter in a 1998 drunken-driving crash in downtown St. Louis that killed a woman.
If Little is found to be a persistent offender, he has plenty of company. One in three people charged with drunken driving repeats the offense; people with drunken-driving convictions are involved in fatal crashes more than four times as often as the general population, said the National Commission Against Drunk Driving.
Commission head John Moulden said two actions tend to discourage repeaters: A suspension of driving privileges and treatment for alcohol dependency. The commission says simple jail time has been shown to have no affect on recidivism in chronic drunken drivers. “No matter what you do, if they have a problem with alcohol, if you put them in jail or tie them to a tree and then you release them, they’re going to be back into the same behaviors and problems that they’ve started with,” he said.
Why the continuing problem with drunk driving? “Everyone is very concerned about the trend, and nobody knows for sure why it’s happened,” said Anne McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Va. The institute believes one way to turn things around is for police to step up checkpoints and to instill drunken drivers with fear that they will be caught. Most police departments used to do it regularly, but fewer do it now.