On a sunny spring day in 1971 my dad and I were waiting at a red light in West Seattle when we heard a a loud, screeching sound. I turned to ask, “What’s that?” when I heard a bang and was hurled toward the dashboard.
We were hit in the middle of the day by a drunken driver. We were shaken, not hurt, but the drunk, with several previous offenses, wasn’t wearing a seat belt and his nose was broken. Cops were there immediately.
My dad, an off-duty cop, got out of the car and told me to stay put.
Drunken driving was not taken that seriously back then. (The most famous license plate in America was Dean Martin’s “Drunky.”) Today, things are different.
The first time, getting caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can cost you money, a short stint in jail, higher insurance rates, a lost driver’s license and the stigma of being a convicted drunken driver.
That deters most people from getting behind the wheel drunk in the first place. For those who do and get pinched, the experience usually deters a second go-round.
But while the culture has changed, habitual drunks and drug addicts haven’t.
If you don’t have much money, fines don’t matter. If you’ve lost your fear of incarceration, a few days or weeks in the local lockup is little more than an inconvenience. And if your drinking has already exhausted the patience of your friends, colleagues and employers, then you probably don’t have much of a reputation left to lose.
What else is left? Your driver’s license? Higher insurance rates? Many drunks drive without either.
Mark Mullan, the driver who police say crashed into the Schulte family in Wedgwood in March, had at least five drunk-driving arrests dating back decades.
The crash killed Dennis and Judith Schulte.,Their daughter-in-law, and 10-day-old grandson remain in fragile condition at Harborview. News reports said Mullan bragged about talking his way out of even more arrests.
Another drunken driver killed someone on Thursday. Morgan Fick Williams was hit by a driver pulling a U-turn on Highway 520 and died of her injuries. Michael Anthony Robertson, the driver police say caused the crash, had previously been arrested for a DUI.
So what do you do about defiantly drunk drivers before they kill?
Take away their car. Permanently.
I propose that if police pull someone over who has lost his or her license because of a DUI, or is defying a court order to install an ignition-interlock device, impound the vehicle and don’t return it.
The same automatic penalty should accompany a second DUI within a five-year period, or three DUIs within any period.
If a gun owner is arrested for drunkenly firing his weapon in a public place, he’ll likely lose his gun. Why not extend that principle to drunks and their cars?
The impounded vehicle could be sold at auction and the proceeds used to help cover the medical bills for victims of drunken driving.
Why will it work? Because it’s an upfront penalty that makes an immediate impression on drunks and drug addicts who refuse to absorb the message that driving under the influence is no longer acceptable.
And it’s much less expensive than long prison terms that Olympia won’t allow judges to impose anyway. Today’s Legislature won’t even allow authorities to charge a third DUI as a felony.
These needless deaths at the hands of drivers who blithely blow off the law and the court-ordered conditions on their driving are entirely preventable.
Like street criminals, a small number of serial offenders are wreaking horrendous amounts of damage and suffering. Relieving them of the car they can’t responsibly drive makes it more difficult for them to hurt other people and themselves.
John Carlson hosts a morning radio show in Seattle, has sponsored three statewide initiatives and run for governor. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org