REP. JAMES V. HANSEN (R-Utah) has R been involved in two automobile accidents in the last five months. The first occurred last May when a driver went through a stop sign. Hansen suffered cuts and sprains and his car was totaled. He says the police officer told him the driver who hit him had been drinking, but that he was just going to give him a citation.
Two months later, Hansen, his wife and five children were in Utah, going about 50 miles an hour in the right lane, when another driver came along in the left lane at what Hansen describes as "a pretty good clip." The driver lost control, bounced off the interstate barrier and hit the Hansens broadside, rolling their car down a hill and totaling it. Hansen's wife and two of his children suffered fractures. Hansen says the driver admitted drinking beer, but despite Utah laws requiring blood tests to determine alcohol content, the officer only made him walk a straight line before deciding not to charge him.
"That kind of irritated me," says Hansen, a former speaker of the Utah legislature. "What good are all the laws we legislators put in if we can't get the judiciary and the enforcement areas to back us up?"
This week, Hansen and a number of other Congressmen, including Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) and Glenn M. Anderson (D-Calif.), chairman of the House surface transportation subcommittee, urged President Reagan to appoint a presidential commission to develop a comprehensive, national plan for getting drunk drivers off the roads. They also urged him to involve the nation's governors and mayors in a cooperative effort to close the legal and enforcement loopholes that result in nearly 26,000 Americans being killed in alcohol-related collisions each year.
Some 750,000 more Americans are maimed or seriously injured each year in accidents involving alcohol. According to federal data, one out of 10 drivers on the roads on week nights is drunk, yet only one in 2,000 is ever arrested for drunk driving and the chances of the arrested person's being severely punished are insignificant. The General Accounting Office estimates the toll at $5 billion a year in lost wages, medical costs, insurance costs and property damage.
The commission being proposed could be underwritten by the insurance industry, which clearly has a stake in reducing the loss. This is a project that would enable the Reagan White House -- which has been criticized for frivolity and extravagance in its use of private funds for public projects -- to engage industry in preventing the unnecessary loss of American lives.
"It's a national tragedy," says Hansen, "but we just ignore it. It should not be something we just shrug our shoulders about and say, 'That's life.' " Nor should it be something we treat as a routine traffic offense. Maine, he points out, has recently passed a mandatory two-day jail term for a person convicted of drunk driving, and a bar in Bangor that has installed a Breathalyzer has found its patrons more than willing to use it to find out if they are sober enough to drive.
Some 50 members from both parties are currently sponsoring legislation that would allow the federal government to withhold federal highway safety funds from states that don't take a tough stand on drunk drivers. Bills in the House and Senate would require states to set a uniform blood-level standard of intoxication, mandatory sentencing of first offenders to 10 days' service in something like a shock-trauma unit, mandatory suspension of license for up to a year. Repeat offenders would face mandatory sentence of 10 days in jail, loss of license for at least a year and fines. States would need to establish ways of screening drunken drivers for treatment and each state would need to establish a statewide tracking system to identify repeat offenders.
Tom and Dot Sexton are a Bowie couple whose 15-year-old son, Tommy, was killed 14 months ago. The driver received a $200 fine, a year's probation and was sent to an alcohol treatment program. They were among those who joined the congressmen this week to urge the president to make drunk drivers a national priority and to urge citizens to write their mayors, governors, congressmen and the White House to show that American drivers are tired of playing roulette on the road.
The carnage on the highways is not something that defies solution as long as a drunk driver can kill someone and get off with a $200 fine, or as long as a 19-year-old with a record of 17 driving offenses, including driving while intoxicated and reckless driving, is loose to kill four people in an auto crash, as happened in Annandale last November.
"Nobody wants to take on the drunk driver because they're taking on themselves," says Hansen. But there are signs in Congress and in states such as Maine and Maryland, which saw a 130 percent increase in one month's drunk-driving arrests after it toughened its laws, that we are finally ready to do just that.