Ronald Frazier, a U.S. Coast Guard engineer, and his wife, Karen, were driving near their Stafford County, Va., home last summer when they were hit by a pickup truck. Frazier believed the other driver had been drinking and so told the state trooper who came to the scene. Neverthless, the other driver was charged only with a traffic offense, "improper backing."
Later, Frazier and his wife found out from the trooper that the man told him he had been drinking after rather than before the accident. "The state trooper charged him with a lesser offense under the belief he could not get a drunk driving conviction but could get the lesser conviction," says Stafford County Commonwealth's Attorney Daniel Chichester.
The Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys will be recommending three changes to the next session of the state legislature to toughen state laws against drunk drivers. Among them will be a change in the drunk driving statute to nullify claims that a person has flunked blood or breath tests because he or she drank after the accident.
For a person to claim that he drank after an accident is not a foolproof defense, says Chichester, but it has worked, and it is a loophole that needs to be closed. "If a state trooper knew a guy couldn't make that as a defense, then he would charge him with drunk driving.
"It seems to me that anybody who takes a drink after he's been involved in an accident, by that fact alone, demonstrates his lack of concern for public safety on the highways to the point where that should not be allowed as a defense," says Chichester. "I think we ought to take off the gloves when we're dealing with drunk drivers."
"The commonwealth's attorneys are also going to recommend changes in laws governing treatment and punishment of drunk drivers. As it is now, a judge must suspend the permit of someone convicted of drunk driving for six months to a year. If he completes a drinking drivers course, his conviction is expunged. "It becomes a problem when a person is charged a second time," says Chichester. "He comes before the court as though it was the first offense." The revision being sought would eliminate the expungement of the first conviction but allow judges to suspend the permit for less than six months or not at all. "Then when the drunk driver comes in a second time and he's charged a second time, he'll spend 30 days in jail, minimum," says Chichester. "If we start doing that, then you might start deterring people."
Thirdly, the commonwealth's attorneys will again back a vehicular homicide bill that will make it a felony for a person to drive a car recklessly and kill another person. "What we are left with at this point is charging people with involuntary manslaughter with a vehicle . . . . It's very hard to get a conviction."
More than 300 members of Congress recently sent a letter to President Reagan urging him to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to develop a national master plan to reduce drunk driving and to urge state governors to put together state and local task forces to examine their local systems for dealing with drunk drivers.
Some 26,000 people are killed by drunk drivers every year. These people leave behind families that are getting involved in such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and they are learning how to lobby local governing bodies to set up task forces to reform their local systems.
People such as Ron Frazier, who describes himself as an "easy-going citizen," have gotten involved as a result of personal contact with the drunk driving problem. "We're not really victims. We didn't loose any life. We're just concerned people," he says. They are trying to form a chapter of MADD in their county and have agreed to testify about the loophole they encountered before the Virginia General Assembly.
This is the kind of citizen involvement, combined with a local and state approach to problems, that President Reagan has been urging. It is the kind of citizen involvement that produced reforms in states ranging from Maryland to California. By appointing a blue-ribbon commission, President Reagan could focus attention on the problem and lead a coordinated national effort to keep drunk drivers off the roads. President Reagan has the opportunity to put the weight of his office behind the drive to curb a major public health problem that has been tolerated far too long. It is a drive that deserves his support.