Smashed: The toll of driving drunk in Minnesota

Minnesota vs. deadly DWIs: Who's winning?

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2011 - 4:50 PM

Minnesota gets high marks among states for enforcement, but not for punishment.

Two states. Two drunken driving deaths. Two very different outcomes.

A 21-year-old Las Vegas man with a belly full of booze crossed into a turn lane at more than 60 miles an hour and smashed into a casino worker looking for a late-night snack. Robert A. Lichamer, who had no prior drinking and driving offenses, was sentenced by a Nevada judge to 10 years in prison for the fatal crash.

Three years later, a Minneapolis mother got drunk at her daughter's high school graduation, went off the road and slammed into a bus shelter, killing a bystander. Kirsten Driscoll, who had no prior DWI offenses, got a one-year sentence in the workhouse.

"When you start handing out [sentences] like that, my God, it diminishes the value of human life," said Sandy Heverly, director of Stop DUI, a nonprofit organization in Las Vegas. "It diminishes the severity of the crime. It's awful."

When it comes to addressing the carnage caused by drinking and driving, Minnesota gets mixed reviews. A survey of experts and drunken driving laws across the United States indicates Minnesota is strong on enforcement but softer than many states when it comes to punishing drunken drivers. Nearly 900 people in Minnesota have been killed in alcohol-related crashes over the past five years.

"You've had some of the weaker laws, but some of the best enforcement and enforcement campaigns," said John Saunders, an executive board member with the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Unlike at least 20 states, Minnesota has no minimum sentence for criminal vehicular homicide, a felony charge often cited when someone is killed by a drunken driver. In Nevada, the crime carries a minimum sentence of two years for first-time offenders, while drunken drivers with three or more DWIs must spend at least 10 years behind bars for killing someone with their vehicle.

Nearly 40 states allow police to set up sobriety checkpoints, often cited as one of the best tactics to keep roads safe. Minnesota started using checkpoints in 1990 but stopped four years later when the state Supreme Court ruled the tactic unconstitutional. There has been no major effort to change the law through a constitutional amendment. Police now rely largely on saturation patrols, which are less effective, to discourage drunken driving.

Minnesota also doesn't impose enhanced penalties for extreme drunken driving unless offenders register a blood-alcohol level of 0.20 percent. Most states that impose extra penalties do so at lower levels.

"People in Minnesota have to come to grips with the idea that this is a serious crime," said Lynne Goughler, chair of public policy for the Minnesota chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "And I just don't think our state, for whatever reasons, takes it seriously."

Child's death spurs action

Better cars, tougher penalties and improved enforcement are credited with reducing drunken driving deaths throughout the nation. In 2008, 163 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in Minnesota, a 35 percent decline from 1990.

But Minnesota hasn't kept pace with many of its peers on finding new ways to combat drunken driving.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers recently toughened many penalties for repeat offenders. Among the changes taking effect in July, Wisconsin will require first-time offenders with blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 percent or higher and all second-time offenders to install ignition interlocks on their cars and blow into them each time they open the door and turn the key.

In Minnesota, a proposal by Gov. Tim Pawlenty that would require all offenders to use ignition interlocks or risk losing their license for six months has proven controversial and is still stuck in committee.

In New York, legislators met in a special session and swiftly passed a law that makes it a felony to drive drunk with a child 15 or younger in the vehicle. That came after a horrific 2009 crash. Under "Leandra's Law," named after 11-year-old crash victim Leandra Rosado, first-time offenders convicted of driving drunk with a child can face up to four years in prison. Those who injure or kill a child can be sentenced to as much as 15 to 25 years in prison, respectively.

In Minnesota, there are no additional criminal sanctions for driving drunk with a child in the car, though it can be used as a factor in sentencing.

New York also approved the use of ignition interlocks and is preparing to mount an aggressive public awareness campaign about the perils of drunken driving.

"There's no silver bullet answer to fix this stuff," said Chuck DeWeese, assistant commissioner for the New York Governor's Traffic Safety Committee. "We're still trying to figure out why we're failing. We're trying to get inside the head of people who drink and drive to figure out what we can do to fix it."

DeWeese said he was shocked by a 2009 study on impaired driving, which showed that the fear of hurting or killing someone is the greatest deterrent to driving drunk for most New Yorkers.

In response, New York created a series of public service announcements featuring relatives of drunken driving victims. The first ads air this month and feature the parents of Katie Flynn, 7, who was decapitated in 2005 after a pickup truck driven by a drunken driver going the wrong way slammed into the limousine she was riding in with her family.

In one ad, Katie's father, Neil Flynn, who was injured in the crash, looks into the camera and chokes up. He asks: Could you live with yourself if you murdered my daughter?

"People do not understand that when you are talking about DUI deaths and serious bodily injuries, you're talking about what you're seeing on a battlefield," Heverly said. "They are literally torn to pieces. They are burned to death in these vehicles. ... The only difference between homicide and vehicular homicide is the weight of the weapon."

Hotline leads to DWI arrests

In 2005, New Mexico became the first state to require ignition interlocks on cars for all offenders. It also assigned 10 full-time deputies to DWI patrol in counties where the problem was the worst.

To help police quickly identify the busiest spots for drunken driving and improve the effectiveness of checkpoints and roving patrols, law enforcement agencies began using state crash data to deploy their forces. Following Colorado's lead, New Mexico also established a "DrunkBusters" hotline, which encourages citizens to report erratic or drunk driving to a central dispatch center in Albuquerque. In 2007, the program's first year, police arrested 142 drunken drivers off DrunkBuster calls, with such arrests tripling by 2009.

By dialing #394 (DWI), a caller is connected to a dispatcher, who finds the nearest police force. In a three-way conversation, the caller relays a description of the vehicle, a license plate number and the location where the incident is taking place.

Major Pete Kassetas, of the New Mexico State Police, said he was skeptical when the controversial program was launched, but he has become a believer.

"The state police are spread so far and thin that we have to depend on interaction from the public," he said. "Is it worth the effort? I tell people 'Your daughter got home safe that night. The 28th drunk we arrested didn't kill them.'"

Since 2004, the number of drunken driving deaths in New Mexico dropped from 219 to 152 in 2009, or slightly more than 30 percent. Over that same period, the number of drunken driving deaths declined by 8 percent in Minnesota. Advocates in New Mexico say the state had a lot of room for improvement.

"Raising the perception of the risk of getting caught -- that's what changes behavior," said Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

  • about this series

  • In Minnesota, drunken drivers who kill someone with their car sometimes get less time behind bars than nonviolent offenders. Public safety advocates say it's part of a culture of forgiveness surrounding drunken driving, a social problem that killed 893 people on Minnesota roads in the past five years. Read the Star Tribune's in-depth look at the scourge of drunken driving, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises.
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