Putting letter Z on license plates isn't cure for DUIs

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Drunken driving, despite the tougher penalties imposed over the past 20 years, continues to be a serious problem. More can - and should - be done to curb this dangerous behavior that puts innocent lives at risk.

But a proposal by state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Whidbey Island, aimed at punishing drunken drivers misses the mark.

Smith's proposal calls for Washington state residents with drunken-driving records to buy a special license plate for any car they drive. The license plate would have letter Z - the last letter on the license plate - and would serve as the new scarlet letter to bring shame to the driver.

What about the family members of drunken drivers? Or friends and neighbors who might borrow the car? Do they deserve to be shamed?

And what purpose does shaming a drunken driver serve?

Many intoxicated drivers have a serious problem with alcohol and/or drugs. When drunken drivers are arrested, jailed and then fined, it can be a wake-up call to get help. The goal is not just to punish but to change behavior. The fewer drunken drivers there are on the road, the safer we all will be.

If going to jail and paying a hefty fine isn't going to change behavior, it's unlikely a Z on a license plate will do the trick.

If the Legislature is going to take action to further curb drunken driving, it should focus on things that are likely to actually change behavior.

Lawmakers this week considered several DUI proposals including longer sentences for first-time offenders and the required installation of ignition interlock devices for convicted negligent or reckless drivers.

In addition, by Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, proposed the seriousness level of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault be raised with longer sentences to match. Vehicular homicide would be equated to first-degree manslaughter, which would essentially double the sentence.

These proposals have merit, although how the state would pay for longer jail and prison sentences given the $5 billion revenue shortfall will be a difficult question to answer.

The focus should be on cost-effective ways to prevent drunken driving from ever occurring. That can be done without enacting new laws.

In Walla Walla, for example, a Tipsy Taxi service is available a week or so before Christmas through New Year's Day to provide rides free of charge to those who drink too much at parties or at bars.

And some bars and taverns in the city pay year round for a cab to take home customers who should not be driving.

These programs are likely to do more to keep drunken drivers off the road than a Z - albeit an embarrassing one - on license plates.

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