When it Comes to Drunk Driving, Fast Punishment is Effective Punishment
> 7/26/2007 12:42:57 PM

According to the CDC, nearly 17,000 Americans died in alcohol related crashes in 2005, and while 1.4 million drivers were cited for drunk driving, 159 million people self-reported that they had driven under the influence during that year. Communities have taken a number of steps to combat drunken driving from reducing the legal limit of blood alcohol content (BAC) to prohibiting open containers in moving vehicles to stiffening penalties for repeat offenders. While the efficacy of many of these efforts remain up in the air, a new study led by Dr. Alexander Wagenaar of the University of Florida has found that when it comes to punishing drunk drivers, the speed at which the punishment is administered is more important than the severity of that punishment.

Wagenaar and his associates came to their conclusion by examining a much as 20 years worth of data from 46 U.S. states. They tested the idea of celerity, or the speed of punishment application, by comparing relative DUI fatality statistics occurring under two methods of license revocation—pre-conviction and post-conviction. As Dr. Wagenaar described when reached by email, their study found that license revocation that happened immediately had a significant impact on alcohol related crash fatalities, while post-conviction revocations, often occurring months after an incident, had no effect on future accidents.

Responding to an email from TOL, Wagenaar explained:

"The pre-conviction laws were clearly effective in significantly reducing alcohol-related fatal car crashes, and the post-conviction laws were not. The main difference between the two is one is implemented immediately (or within a day or two), the other often takes 6 months or longer before it takes effect (after a case winds its way thru the courts). Thus, the immediate punishment was effective, the delayed one not.

"We previously studied the effects of laws specifying mandatory jail terms for DUI. Those laws were not effective. Thus, even though the license suspension is a modest penalty given the severity of the risks of driving drunk, when it's implemented immediately, it has clear effects in reducing drunk driving and the deaths that frequently result," Wagenaar wrote.

The team found that the effectiveness of speedy punishment held up over varying levels of drinkers. That is to say, the results of immediate license revocation were uniform for those who drank only a couple of drinks to those who were well over the legal limit, and everyone in between. Wagenaar pointed out that the idea of celerity has been a staple of deterrence literature for some time, and this study confirms previous conclusions that demonstrated the importance of how soon after a negative behavior one must be punished for that punishment to truly serve as a deterrent.

With communities nationwide struggling to find effective solutions to drunk driving, this new evidence could not have come at a better time. Punishment, to be effective, must be swift. As Wagenaar pointed out, the severity of a punishment is not nearly as important, contrary to what many think. This should prove doubly helpful for smaller communities looking to effect change in drunk driving patterns as swift punishment is not necessarily any more costly, and may in fact be more cost-efficient.

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