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August 5, 2009
Column # 1,458
How To Reduce Drunk Driving Deaths
By Mike McManus

Last Sunday's CBS "60 Minutes" re-broadcast a powerful story on one answer to drunk driving which kills 13,000 Americans a year: prosecution of drunks who kill as murderers.

The story began with a  joyful wedding where we see Katie Flynn, 7, as a smiling flower girl, casting rose petals. Her family went home in a limo, normally a safe way to travel. However, Martin Heidgen, 24, with a Blood Alcohol Content over three times the legal limit, was driving his pickup truck in the wrong direction on the Long Island Parkway.

He crashed head-on and survived, but the limo driver was killed as was Katie who was beheaded, to the horror of her parents who lived. "The sadness and despair that is with me every day, I can't even put into words," lamented her mother.

Her father sadly added, "I relive the crash. I think about it every day. I have nightmares about it every night. And I live my life without my daughter because of it."

"One of the compelling things about this case, is that it really ripped the mask off drunk driving," says Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who prosecuted the case.

"A seven-year-old girl is beheaded. The driver of the car is crushed to death.  Too many people think about drunk driving crashes, or accidents as people like to call them…These crimes are incredibly violent."

Consequently, she charged Heidgen not with manslaughter, or accidental killing, as is typical in such cases, but with the more severe charge of murder.  Why?

"The statute under which he was charged required us to prove that through his actions, he had a completely depraved indifference to human life.  His actions made the deaths of Katie Flynn and Stanley Rabinowitz inevitable. "It was as inevitable as taking a gun and firing it at an individual who's standing five feet away."

Heidgen's Attorney Steven Lamagna, denounced his client's being charged with "vehicular homicide" or "murder with a life sentence, as if he's Jeffrey Dahmer or John Gotti. Murder in our society, and in every state in the union, is relegated to the most dangerous, cold-blooded killers - not for young men like Martin Heidgen, a recent college graduate who had no previous convictions of any kind," he said.

"Murder carries a mandatory penalty of 15 years to life" - too much for a young man who "never intended to kill anyone…But for the alcohol, this wouldn't have happened."

DA Kathleen Rice counters, "Can you imagine if the law allowed Mr. Heidgen to say, `Wait, wait, wait. But I was drunk. So I shouldn't be responsible. What kind of lawlessness would you have if intoxication excused that kind of behavior?"

After a six-week trial, attended by Katie's family, Heidgen was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life. 

Drunk drivers who kill people SHOULD be prosecuted as murderers.  "Kathleen Rice is extraordinary," declared Chuck Hurley, President of Dallas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "But there are only a limited number of cases where murder prosecution is warranted."

A more comprehensive nationwide strategy is needed. In California alone in 2008, there were 311,000 convictions of people who had been arrested three times or more for Driving While Intoxicated.  In Arkansas there were 1,400 who had been arrested TEN TIMES or more.  One had been arrested 40 times!

None of these DWI people should have been on the highway.  They must be removed. Obviously, taking away their driver's licenses is ineffective.  In fact, one study reports that the average DWI conviction comes only after the driver has driven drunk 87 times.

That puts us all at risk

MADD's Hurley recommends that after the first DWI conviction, an Interlock should be installed on the driver's car which will not allow the engine to turn on until the driver blows into the device, proving that his BAC is below .08, the legal maximum.

Hurley notes that New Mexico was the first state to require an Interlock for any DWI convictions in 2005. Result: a 35 percent reduction of drunk driving fatalities. Eleven states adopted the same law.

MADD convinced a House Transportation Committee to require DWI to be defined as .08 BAC, or the state would lose 8% of its federal funding, when most states defined DWI at .1 BAC or higher. All lowered the definition rather than lose federal funding.

France and Germany define DWI as .05 and Japan, .03. 

MADD should push Washington to threaten states again to cut federal funding if they don't enact a .05 BAC limit, and require mandatory Interlocks for any DWI conviction.

Your life may be saved - or mine.
 
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