National effort targets drunken drivers

Federal and state police started a nationwide crackdown on drunken driving Wednesday, saying previous efforts had not done enough to reduce deaths from impaired drivers.

The crackdown, however, may face resistance from a growing industry devoted to defending people arrested on drunken driving charges. These groups contend overzealous police forces inflated the problem out of proportion, trampling rights in the process.

The new effort, sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, involves 11,000 law enforcement agencies. It includes:

_Increased patrols and checkpoints in states that allow them.

_An $11 million television advertising campaign that will replace the previous “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” slogan with “Drunk driving – over the limit, under arrest.”

“Drunk driving is an epidemic and is a scourge of this country,” said Jim Champagne, a Louisiana State Police trooper and chairman of the Governors’ Highway Safety Association. “The cost to the country in lives, in jobs and in economic value is unbelievable.”

The traffic safety administration released new statistics Wednesday showing that deaths in traffic accidents involving drivers whose blood alcohol level was at least 0.08 fell 1.2 percent in 2005 to 12,945.

NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason said the decision to get tougher with drunken drivers came after a decade of small reductions in fatalities despite arrests that totaled 1.4 million in 2004.

“This is really focused on enforcement. This is not a friend asking a friend to not drive drunk,” Nason said. The message is “it’s illegal to drink and drive, and you’re going to go to jail for it.”

During the past decade, federal officials and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers pushed for tougher penalties against drunken drivers. Since 1999, every state has set its definition of drunk at the 0.08 blood alcohol level, and added penalties such as on-the-spot cancellation of driver’s licenses and vehicle impoundment for suspects who refuse blood alcohol tests. Champagne contended states could do more, and “stop piddy-padding in judicial systems and letting drunk drivers get off.”

While those changes made a small dent in alcohol-related deaths, they spawned a network of companies and attorneys who defend people charged with drunken driving. The National College for DUI Defense has about 500 attorneys as members (including Ken Gibson), and several Internet sites offer long lists of tips about what to do if pulled over for drunken driving.

“It’s lawful in every state to drink and drive, but it’s unlawful to drink to the point of impairment,” said Patrick Barone, a Birmingham, Mich., attorney who specializes in drunken driving defense. Roadblocks and checkpoints “are an inappropriate use of executive power and police resources.”

Barone and other attorneys contend the revenue generated from drunken driving cases in fines make police overly aggressive, arresting drivers who have a smell of alcohol on their breath but no signs of impairment. Further, arrest quotas at some police departments sweep up innocent people.

Zero tolerance is a great slogan, but it’s not the law in any state in the country

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