Are California's Strict Drunk Driving Laws Tough Enough?

A suspected DUI collision in the Valley
A suspected DUI collision in the Valley

Cars are safer than ever. Even drivers who stuff their faces into their smartphones have a good chance of surviving or even avoiding a serious crash because their vehicles often have collision-avoidance systems, almost-telepathic brakes and multiple airbags.

But even an armor-plated Volvo won't be able to save some drivers from themselves. More than a third of all traffic fatalities in Caifornia can be blamed on drunk drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Yet a new WalletHub analysis, "Strictest and Most Lenient States on DUI," concludes that the Golden State has some of the nation's toughest consequences for convicted drunk drivers. California ranked first in the country in average insurance rate increases for DUI motorists, fifth for the length of DUI jail time, and sixth for the severity of driver's license suspensions.

However, the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has been a key force in the evolution of inebriated-motoring laws, isn't entirely satisfied with California's laws. The group would like to see more checkpoints and expanded driver's license revocations. The organization gives the Golden State 3.5 out of 5 stars for its DUI laws.

"California still has work to do to pass the best drunk-driving laws," spokeswoman Becky Iannotta said via email. "California passed a law expanding an ignition-interlock program statewide beginning in January 2019, which will increase the number of ignition interlocks used. However, MADD strongly supports strengthening that law to make ignition interlocks a requirement — not an incentivized option — for all drunk-driving offenders. In addition, California should make it a felony to drive drunk with a child passenger."

Indeed, while the Golden State exceled in certain measures, like insurance penalties, it ranked only 21st overall nationwide in the WalletHub analysis. It ranked 31st for prevention measures and 16th for minimum fines for a second offense.

Arizona, which ranked first for criminal penalties and second for prevention efforts, topped the list of "Strictest States." The most lenient DUI state was determined to be South Dakota.

Coast-to-coast DUI laws got tougher in the 1980s and 1990s, but WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez says the increase in penalties plateaued after that. "There haven't been too many shifts in DUI laws since the late '80s/early '90s, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving brought this subject into the spotlight," she said via email.

"DUI legislation should tighten up in many states, as offenders still write off the severity of their actions," she said. "The fact that both police and the public are more informed about the dangers of drunk driving brought about sweeping changes in legislation, which in turn cut down drunk-driving fatalities by 57 percent from 1982 to 2014, according to NHTSA."

Auto safety developments surely played a part. But until cars can navigate roads on their own, California will have to deal with drunk drivers one way or another.


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