On Aug. 19, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration begins its annual “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign, running for three weeks through the Labor Day weekend—a time of year when drunken-driving fatalities typically surge. Over the past generation, we’ve made important progress against “driving under the influence,” but the numbers haven’t dropped much recently, and the problem still costs some 10,000 Americans their lives each year.
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous like to joke that when alcoholics get arrested for drunken driving enough times, it finally sinks in that they need to make a change in their life, so they quit…driving. The joke is directed at alcoholics themselves, but it also applies to the criminal justice system. Legislators and judges have responded to repeat drunken drivers by trying to eliminate their driving—through incarceration, license suspension, ignition locks and vehicle impoundment. Their approach has been to separate the drivers from their vehicles, not from their drinking habits.
A decade ago, as attorney general of South Dakota, Larry Long saw the need for a more direct approach and launched a program called “24/7 Sobriety.” I first encountered 24/7 Sobriety five years ago, and it confounded much of what I had learned in my years as an addiction-treatment professional.
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