The national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving has it right when she says, as she did last week, that the country can't continue to have about 17,000 of its people dying year after year in vehicle accidents involving alcohol. Since 1995, she notes, there has been scant change in the numbers.
And a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Administration agreed that repeat offenders, drivers with very high blood-alcohol levels, and people who keep driving even after their license has been suspended for drunken driving are ''very definitely problem areas.''
Those comments came amid debate in Washington between the House and Senate over the Senate's version of the nation's highway bill, which ties highway money to the states to implementation by the states of tougher drunken-driving laws. The Senate version confronts those three ''problem areas'' seen by the NTSB and MADD.
For Fairbanks residents, the talk in Washington comes at a time when drunken driving has, through repeated recent tragedy, returned to the foreground of issues. Locals who are working to combat drunken driving and to change what has become an accepting attitude of it will likely be watching closely.
Where they may have more influence, however, is in changing state law. And in that they may have an early ally. Rep. Jim Holm, Republican of Fairbanks, said last week on radio station KFAR that he and his staff are working on legislation to stiffen the penalties for drunken driving. His remarks suggested the need for a reasoned, appropriate response, however, when it comes to changing the law, and in that he is correct. Sometimes, amid public uproar and the cry of ''something must be done,'' legislation can have unforeseen detrimental consequences.
Nonetheless, a public discussion of Alaska's drunken-driving laws is in order. Do they really need to be toughened? Were the recent deaths in the Fairbanks area just an anomaly, albeit a terrible one? Or has Alaska become a state in which drinking and driving isn't taken seriously and a drunken-driving arrest is sloughed off by the perpetrator as no big deal and the only regret is in having been caught?
Those questions need answering.
Perhaps it's time for members of each of the appropriate legislative committees the Judiciary and the Health, Education and Social Services committees of each chamber of the Alaska Legislature to hold a hearing in Fairbanks this summer to hear what residents have to say about drunken driving. Legislative committees have found time over the years to hold interim hearings around the state on a variety of topics, and the topic of Alaska's drunken-driving laws clearly is one that the people of this region want to revisit.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
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