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SPINDLERS: Governor’s office ignoring facts on DUI reform

By Gregg and Susan Spindler

We appreciate that The Daily Republic has covered the National Transportation Safety Board and Spindler family proposal for DUI reform in South Dakota and followed up by requesting a response from the governor’s spokesman, Tony Venhuizen. His response was enlightening.

Mr. Venhuizen said the state has responsibility to see “whether changes [in DUI laws are] justified by evidence and by data.” The recommendations of the NTSB are precisely the evidence and data required to justify changes. That the governor and his staff have decided to ignore the facts made public safety a political and ideological issue, which it should never become.

The most important part of Mr. Venhuizen’s response stated High Visibility Enforcement has recently become an emphasis, which is positive. This is a clear admission that the governor’s office knows it has a DUI problem and how best to fix it. But it is very disturbing that he says the state “lacks resources” to fund HVE and apparently thinks one Highway Patrol enforcement action in the state per day is sufficient. Lack of enforcement is directly related to high DUI incidence, death and injury. Preventing death and injury with HVE costs money — but they don’t want to spend it.

Because the governor’s office admits that it doesn’t have adequate resources to insure public safety with HVE, it is particularly disappointing that it rejects increasing or even dedicating the existing “user fee” (excise tax) on alcohol to fund enforcement and treatment. Half of all alcohol is consumed by only 5 percent of the drinkers with the worst problems and 80 percent is consumed by only 20 percent of drinkers. One-third of the public doesn’t even drink.

Does the governor object that those who use the most pay most? It is simply fair and equitable. A “user fee” will relieve local taxpayers of the burden of unfunded mandates placed on them by the state and stop the nanny-state socializing of costs as it currently exists. It will insure that local law enforcement has adequate resources.

SB 70, while increasing the severity of fourth and sixth DUI offenses (which is good), many costs for other DUI offenses have been shifted to counties. Multiple offenders who would have been sentenced to state prison are now the responsibility of county government, and adjudication costs have risen. SB 70 is an unfunded mandate dumped into the counties’ laps

Lowering of blood alcohol content, as recommended by the NTSB, would certainly have the “intended effect” of reducing impaired driving. Public safety research consistently demonstrates this, and Venhuizen simply brushes it off. The lower limit also helps law enforcement in making “good” arrests for borderline cases. Intuitively, anyone can appreciate if there were a lower BAC limit, most drinkers will moderate their behavior accordingly. A 0.05 limit lets people know one or two beers after work is OK, but having four or six could put them into the red zone. For many, it is easier to stop at two than at four. Public safety directly benefits from lower limits, but the bars with a 3-to-11 “happy hour” may be disappointed. Alcohol policy depends upon which constituency the governor cares to serve.

Administrative penalties were also dismissed by the governor’s office. They are advocated by the NTSB because they are a proven, effective deterrent. Once again, it is apparent that the governor’s staff did not actually read the information provided them. An administrative penalty is applied when BAC is above a certain threshold and the suspect arrested. The arrestee’s license is immediately suspended and the vehicle is impounded, both for a period of days. Getting them back requires a payment of fees of a few hundred dollars, which pays the towing company, compensates law enforcement for making the arrest and DMV for processing the suspension. Consider what happens to an illegally parked car — it is often towed, and the owner pays to retrieve it. Then the parking ticket is adjudicated. Venhuizen contends there is a parallel system of administrative law judges, which is nonsense. The governor and his staff believe that coddling drunk drivers is OK by letting them drive away the very next day and not applying administrative penalties as recommended by the NTSB. If it is OK for parking violations, why not DUI suspects?

Venhuizen did not bother to address the fact that 45 percent of the DUI arrests in 2012 did not result in a conviction, probably because it is a most embarrassing fact. Most are plea bargains to lesser charges, frustrating law enforcement and allowing offenders to escape the consequences of their actions. Plea bargains must be limited, but the governor’s office once again seeks to nanny and coddle the drunk drivers.

How can it be that the governor and his inner circle of advisers believe that an average of a single enforcement action per day in the entire state is an adequate enforcement response? Why shouldn’t drunk drivers be treated the same as parking scofflaws and have their cars towed? Shouldn’t they agree to a vigorous, well-funded enforcement program to end the killing? Do they think that South Dakota’s 53 deaths (almost 40 percent of all traffic fatalities) and 731 injuries in 2012 is an acceptable level of carnage, because it would cost money to lower it? Are they taking their responsibility to insure public safety seriously? We think not.

— Gregg and Susan Spindler, of Cazenovia, N.Y., are the parents of Maegan Spindler, who was killed by an allegedly drunken driver in Pickstown in July.