Lesser penalties for first-time DUIs?

A national headline popped up in late December 2010 asserting that a state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving was advocating for softer penalties for first-time drunken-driving convictions.

The headline asked, "Lesser penalties for first-time DUIs?" and a CNN story included the description that a "chapter of MADD is advocating for lighter penalties for some DUI offenders."

Well, not really.

I spoke to MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney to clarify the news.

She explains that while it's not MADD's bill (it was started by a prosecutors' group in Texas, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association), MADD is backing the bill because it contains a few unique elements that directly relate to MADD's mission and campaigns. Particularly, the deferred adjudication bill contains a requirement that all first-time convicted drunken drivers in Texas would have an ignition interlock installed in their vehicle as a condition of probation, which Dean-Mooney says is generally never seen on a plea bargain bill. The second key difference is that the bill would ensure that the offense does go on the offender's record so that if they do become a repeat offender, they would be charged as one.

What's cloudy about the headline is that it can confuse readers both citizen and law enforcement alike. MADD has built a trust and legacy in its 30 years of working to end drunken driving. Based on its heritage, as a citizen I've long come to support the causes MADD has fought for or against. So when I crawled across the headline in question, I was a little puzzled. And I'm not the only one. One CNN viewer online commented: "When MADD thinks our laws are too harsh … we're getting screwed."

Again, not exactly.

Better tracking of drug and alcohol related offenses can help better identify the citizens with problems and guide the necessary recourse to correct the dangerous — and deadly — behavior.

Dean-Mooney knows firsthand that it only takes one incident to demonstrate the loss that drunken driving causes. Nineteen years ago, her husband Mike was killed after a driver crossed the median on a divided highway and struck Mike's car head on, killing both men. Dean-Mooney strongly believes that even though the driver who killed her husband had no prior alcohol-related offenses on his record, given his high tolerance for alcohol (upon death he had a blood alcohol level of .34 she says) and his ability to operate the vehicle in that state are evidence enough to her that it wasn't his first time drunk behind the wheel. That tragedy is evidence to why MADD is in support of the Texas bill: it would not lessen consequences but rather alter them to better track offenders' alcohol-related incidents and more quickly correct chronic drug or alcohol-induced behavior.

MADD certainly hasn't softened its stance. The organization still believes that drunken drivers who are caught and convicted deserve the penalties.

It's not often I speak to business leaders who readily say they're looking forward to going out of business. But Dean-Mooney emphatically tells me that one day, she hopes the group will do just that.

It is with backing legislation that keeps alcohol-related behavior on the books, requiring ignition interlocks and supporting law enforcement's continuing efforts to eradicate drunken driving on our roads that Dean-Mooney and her colleagues work diligently to put a stop to driving under the influence and effectively, go out of business.