DWI Courts: Cure for Drunk Driving Carnage?

It is abundantly clear that drunk driving is an important health and safety issue in the United States. The statistics make that obvious: There are more than 17,000 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the United States every year. What is significantly less obvious is the answer to the problem. Certainly, keeping all drivers who are alcohol-impaired off the road seems like an obvious solution, but in taking a closer look at the problem, it appears that huge gains can be made by dealing with those who are at the heart of the problem: the hardcore drunk drivers.

Hardcore drunk drivers are drivers with a high blood alcohol concentration of .15 and above and/or are repeat drunk driving offenders. These drunk drivers are responsible for 58 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities and are 380 times more likely to be involved in a crash than are other drivers. They are by far the most dangerous drivers on the road, and they could rightly be described as “accidents waiting to happen.” Unfortunately, statistics demonstrate that the often-used procedure of conviction without treatment is not effective in addressing these hardcore drunk drivers. Without rehabilitation, when they get out of jail, they will both drink and drive again, and the results are often tragic.

The good news is that innovative DWI Court systems like the one in the state of Georgia deal with hardcore drunk driving offenders by providing long-term, ongoing accountability and rehabilitation in addition to conviction. These courts have become the model for getting the most dangerous drunk drivers off our roads. Recently, an esoteric combination of DWI Court judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, representatives of the distilling industry and even NASCAR driver Robby Gordon assembled at the Georgia state capitol to discuss the lessons learned in the DWI Courts and highlight their contributions to the public at large. Preliminary research of Georgia DWI Courts shows that those who go through DWI Courts are 79 percent less likely than offenders who received traditional punishment to be re-arrested for a DWI charge. Currently, there are 445 DWI Courts across the country, with 13 of those in Georgia.

“DWI Courts are saving lives,” said the Honorable Kent Lawrence, State Court of Athens-Clarke County, Athens, Ga. “Georgia DWI Courts have proven that blending long-term treatment with the accountability, immediacy and certainty of court response is more effective than punishment alone. These courts truly promise better long-term outcomes, and their success has changed the mindset of criminal justice professionals. Georgia is a powerful example of how effective these courts can be.”

Some in the liquor industry have embraced this multipronged approach to the drunk driving issue. For example, Beam Global Spirits & Wine joined forces with the National Center for DWI Courts to shed light on the issue and seek long-term solutions.

“Beam Global Spirits & Wine is committed to eliminating drunk driving,” said Matt Stanton, the company’s vice president of corporate affairs. “We support programs that reduce drunk driving and are committed to working with any state willing to help save lives by establishing DWI Courts.”

While a procedure of figuratively throwing the book at offenders might seem a logical response to problem drunk drivers, statistics suggest that such an approach will lose its effectiveness the minute hardcore offenders get out of jail. Rescinding their driver’s licenses appears to have little effect on preventing them from drinking and driving again.

“We need to do all we can to keep our roads safe,” said Robert F. Dallas, director, Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “High-risk impaired drivers are causing the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities, and this issue needs to be addressed. DWI Courts make our communities safer by reducing the incidence of drunk driving. They work because we address the problem at its roots by requiring treatment and accountability in an intensive, long-term program.”