As part of the legal consequences of a DUI conviction, I am required to attend 20 hours of classes on substance abuse. We met for the first time this past Saturday and Sunday and will meet again next weekend, same times, same place. There’s a group of about a dozen of us including the instructor. We all sit around a table in a room, boxes of Dunkin Donuts sugar bombs provided. The atmosphere is relaxed, and at first we are all a bit nervous. We’ve all been busted for DUI/DWI. I had no idea what to expect, but knew what the stereotypical drunk driver is supposed to be.
None of these people fit.
They were for the most part friendly, nice, intelligent folks with families and jobs, just trying to get along. The stories they shared about how they wound up here surprised me. Sure, there were a couple of classic cases, out at the bar all night drinking and got nailed by the cops on the way home. But there were others that just didn’t seem to belong. Like the woman who had only had a single beer at a restaurant and was stopped on her way home. She passed the field sobriety tests with ease. But the cop wasn’t satisfied and made her do a breathalyzer. She blew just over the legal limit, so he busted her.
Then there was the woman who wasn’t even driving at all. She’d been in the passenger’s seat while her husband negotiated slippery winter conditions. They wound up in a snow bank. She stayed with the car while he went to a neighbor’s house for help. The cop came by and stopped. She told him she hadn’t been behind the wheel, but he didn’t believe her. She had been drinking, and he busted her, because she couldn’t prove she hadn’t been driving.
NH has among the harshest drunk driving laws in the country. You can do absolutely nothing wrong, endanger no one, and still be arrested and plunged into the nightmare. What seems perfectly ordinary, a single beer at a restaurant and then driving home, is illegal. How can they do this? Because restaurants serve alcohol in portions that actually amount to 2 or 3 standard drinks as defined by law. Because even if you are manifesting no external signs of drunkenness, under strict laboratory conditions there is measurable impairment to your judgement after one of these servings.
One fellow was driving home after having a couple of beers and hit a patch of black ice and lost control. How many of us have known someone, or have ourselves hit a patch of black ice stone cold sober and lost control of a car? Would he have been able to avoid the accident if he hadn’t had the beers? Or would it have happened anyway? No way to know. But he does not get the benefit of the doubt. He suffers the consequences, the fines, the loss of license, the increase in insurance rates, the red flag on his license and driving record.
So here we all are taking this damn class. Paying for mistakes that some of us didn’t even realize were mistakes. In at least one case, paying for something we didn’t even do. Sure, I am assuming they were telling the truth. Could be they skewed the story a bit to put themselves in a better light. Maybe even outright lying about some of the details. That’s only human. But mandatory sentencing doesn’t make allowances for humanity. And after two sessions of classes with these people I am convinced they are pretty much in the same boat I am. Ordinary people who are no danger to themselves or society and who do not deserve what has happened to them.
We live in a state that is starved for tax revenue. We are in a budget crisis, spending cut to the bone. New Hampshire desperately needs money, but refuses to tax those who could most afford it. Instead, they rely on squeezing it out of those least able to afford it. And those least able to fight back.
What a sweet deal. The state sells booze and makes a pile on that. Then, they pass strict DWI laws with stiff penalties. They get a cut when restaurants sell alcohol to patrons. Then they pounce when those patrons drive home, and rake in a pile more for fines and fees. The propaganda has the public believing that the stiff DWI laws are for their protection, and the image is of the dangerous repeat offender weaving all over the road and killing innocent bystanders. I don’t deny that public menace is out there, and needs to be taken off the road. But I don’t see him when I look around at the faces of the people in the class with me. I see people who have, for the most part, been screwed.
The class itself is good. The instructor is excellent, a woman with a sense of humor but also a sense of the seriousness of the subject. The information she is passing on is derived from a canned program called “Prime for Life” which she has mercifully edited somewhat to cut to the chase. We are taught about how alcohol (and other drugs) affect the body and what sorts of drinking habits can lead to impairment and eventually to alcoholism. Hereditary factors can contribute, and what seem like harmless behaviors can have serious long-term consequences. Most of it wasn’t a big surprise to me, and is backed up by good science. We aren’t talking DARE propaganda here. Total abstinence isn’t being preached except to those who have already tipped over into alcoholism. For the rest of us, two standard drinks a day is actually quite healthy.
A lot of us agreed that this program ought to be a part of driver’s education, or required upon renewing one’s license at age 21. Perhaps even required for all high school seniors, since so much alcohol mayhem and tragedy occurs among young people, thank in huge part to the influence of advertising, movies and other media glorifying drinking, a lot of it deliberately targeting youth.
Speaking of advertising, the class included a very enlightening video on alcohol ads. I don’t read a lot of magazines, and I haven’t watched regular television in years. I don’t see ads. So when we saw how advertisements prey on consumers, especially young consumers, I was gobsmacked. I had no idea. The advertisers are nothing short of criminally predatory. Again I was outraged by the way people are manipulated into making bad choices and then slapped down for it. Drinking is glamorized; our deepest anxieties and insecurities are evoked, with alcohol as the answer.
We live in a society where we rely heavily on cars. We must drive everywhere, especially in New Hampshire, because we are so rural and we have no public transportation. Now add that fact to the DWI laws and the media’s praise of drinking. Is it any surprise that the courts are packed with offenders?
We are only human. We cannot be expected to make perfect choices all the time. It doesn’t help to be surrounded with societal pressures that push us in the wrong direction. Neither is it particularly helpful, when we have screwed up, to be treated as if we are bad people with failed moral character because of it. Smacked down and punished. Criminalized.
At the end of Sunday’s class one of the group shared his DWI story. It was the anniversary of his daughter’s death. She had been just a child when she died. Her loss affected him deeply. He had gone out and he had been drinking. What a surprise. Should he have been driving in that condition? Of course not. But dear god, where is the compassion? Does the man deserve to be busted on the anniversary of his little girl’s death? Isn’t he already suffering enough?
This isn’t justice. This is a cruel game of Gotcha.