Lock ‘Em Up: Is Jail Really the Best Deterrent to Drunk Driving?

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When I was sentenced to four years in prison for drunk driving, something my prosecutor said stuck with me. He told the courtroom that my punishment would serve as a deterrent; he said stiff sentences for first-time offenders were the best way to send a message.

Does It Work?

For months and years, I mulled over the events of that hearing, often wondering if what my prosecutor said was true. Did sending people to prison really prevent others from getting behind the wheel after knocking back a few too many? I highly doubted it. After all, how many people actually thought they’d get caught when driving drunk? I certainly never did.

When I used to read about drunk driving accidents, I would shake my head and think to myself, “I’d never do something like that.”

The thing is, we never think it will happen to us, which is why stronger punishments for DUI offenders don’t necessarily equate to less drunk drivers.

As it turns out, tougher punishments aren’t effective in deterring people from driving drunk, according to a 2007 study by University of Florida researchers. This study showed in order for stricter penalties to work, people needed to believe they would get caught. But since most crimes, including serious ones, don’t result in an arrest and conviction, many don’t take them seriously. So the severity of punishment has little to no impact on people who don’t believe they will get caught.

Will Anything Work?

What can we do to combat drinking and driving? Experts suggest the following:

  • Sobriety checkpoints, allow police to briefly stop vehicles at specific locations to see if the driver is impaired.
  • Ignition interlock devices, which are installed in a person’s car to measure the amount of alcohol on the driver’s breath.

Many believe that mandating interlocks for all offenders, including first-timers, will have the greatest impact. In fact, a recent report by Mothers Against Drunk Driving showed that interlock devices stop, on average, 1,945 would-be drunk drivers with an illegal .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) from starting their vehicles every month. Another one million with BACs exceeding .025 are left without a ride, thanks to interlock devices.

Though the jury’s still out on the most effective solution, one thing is clear: harsher prison sentences for drunk drivers don’t translate to fewer DUI offenders on the road.

Image Source: iStock

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