Judges still look the other way in drunk driving fatalities

I still remember writing about the deaths in the early eighties of a Hyde Park family of four killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.  The shock of that tragedy seemed to jolt people into taking drunk driving more seriously.  And well it should have.

Back in the ’70’s and ‘8o’s, drunk driving was the cause of at least two thirds of all driving fatalities.  Bars had happy hours, promotions to give away free drinks, “all you can drink for five bucks,” “win free pitchers of beer.”  They drank and they drove. They drove and they crashed, and people died.  Judges were notoriously lenient.  After all, more than a few of them had been known to down one too many. But then came the Hyde Park deaths. 

Massachusetts became the first state to ban happy hours (something bar owners would like to reverse to make themselves more competitive with casinos). Jay Winsten of the Harvard School of Public Health began holding regular lunches for the media to sensitize them to the societal dangers of drunk driving.  He pushed a “designated driver” concept and went out to Hollywood to urge producers of films and soaps to include a message about designated drivers in their scripts.  Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD), formed in 1980, started to gain more traction.  Laws were passed holding bar owners liable for providing liquor to a patron obviously drunk.  The drinking age was raised to 21.

Over time change occurred.  Now “just” a third of highway fatalities are alcohol-related. But there are some stories that make me think we haven’t come so far after all.  Take the 22-year-old Norfolk woman, Elizabeth Finnegan, who was drunk in an Attleboro accident that sent three people to the hospital.  As Matt Stout of the Boston Herald tells the story, she pleaded not guilty to drunk driving and driving without a license. Back in 2006, she had struck and killed a man but the DA’s office let her plead guilty to lesser charges.  She got a six-month license suspension and told to clean up her act.   In 2009, while still on probation, according to columnist Margery Eagan, she was arrested again and sent to a youth alcohol education program.  In this most recent accident, the Registry revoked her license (why did she have it back in the first place?) and the judge (never identified) imposed $3000 bail.

Finnegan’s youth makes her apparent alcoholism pitiable.  But she is still an adult and must be held accountable for her actions.  License removal doesn’t have an impact on such individuals; they’ll drive without it. Ordering another round of alcohol education doesn’t seem to work.  Yes, she has a sickness.  But does that mean the judicial system should make it easy for her to kill again.  Maybe the solution is serious counselling, but maybe jail time would help her dry out and drive home the message.  Maybe others have better ideas.  But this young woman is a menace, and the judicial system should begin to see her that way.

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