4. Drunk Driving and License Suspension Policy

  • Documentation of system failures in drinking driver control. In 1971, Sylvania Sociosystems published, under contract with DMV, a large-scale systems analysis of California's traffic enforcement/driver control process. This study was based on a Senate Resolution (SR 160) and a Request for Proposal developed by R&D. R&D also served as project administrator and contract technical manager of the consultant contract. This project identified numerous defects in the management of the drinking driver control system. Among the problems noted were lack of interagency coordination, failure to successfully prosecute for driving-under-suspension violations (CVC §14601), dismissals of prior drunk driving convictions in order to avoid DMV license suspensions, failure of courts to pick up the licenses of convicted drunk drivers, and failure to apply mandatory sanctions. Numerous recommendations were made and several were implemented. In fact, many of the problems recognized a decade later by groups such as MADD, and in legislation such as AB 541, were pointed out in this study.
  • Validation of license suspension as an effective drunk driving countermeasure. R&D published a series of studies on drunk driving, beginning with a 1975 report pursuant to SCR 44 (Harmer, 1972). The first report concluded that educational approaches to drunk driving control, and rehabilitation approaches based on the medical/disease models of alcohol addiction, were as yet unproven as effective drunk driving countermeasures. The report recommended that traditional sanctions such as license suspension not be relaxed in favor of rehabilitative treatment modalities. The study also recommended statutory changes to eliminate the current use of pre-conviction diversion programs and to constrain the dismissal of prior driving-under-the-influence (DUI) offenses in order to circumvent mandatory license control actions.

Three subsequent studies were done between 1977 and 1981 (Research Report Nos. 59, 68, & 75). These studies concluded that license suspension was effective in reducing the subsequent accident and DUI recidivism rates of drunk drivers. The second report in this series also concluded that SB 38 drinking driver rehabilitation programs had little or no impact on the subsequent accident rate of DUI offenders. A position paper was later produced by the principal author of the three studies which developed a number of cost-effective alternatives to the SB 38 program. The central premise of the paper is that rehabilitative approaches could not be effective if used as diversion mechanisms to avoid license control sanctions. Some of the provisions of subsequent legislation (e.g., AB 541) incorporated this premise, although it is unknown if the policy paper had a direct influence on that legislation.

A series of more recent R&D studies have continued to supply evidence for the effectiveness of license suspension and have also shown that the combined use of license suspension and SB 38 alcohol treatment programs is more effective than use of either one alone (Research Report Nos. 112, 122, 146, & 159). R&D also completed two studies aimed at improving the deterrent effect of license suspension (Research Report Nos. 120 and 129). Although license suspension has been proven effective, a substantial percentage of suspended or revoked (S/R) drivers continue to drive, at least to some extent. One reason for this is that courts frequently do not convict S/R drivers for violating their suspension because of DMV's inability to provide signed proof that the driver actually received the S/R notice ("proof of service"). R&D, in a controlled experiment using different mailing strategies, demonstrated that use of certified mail substantially increased proof of service and led to a reduction in violating suspension orders. Legislation authorizing DMV to use (and charge for) certified mail in sending S/R orders was enacted in 1994. This legislation also established authority for the impounding or forfeiture of vehicles, which are among the recommendations contained in Report Nos. 112 and 129.

The results of the department's evaluation of the effectiveness of license suspension played a significant role in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) advocacy of pre-conviction Administrative Per Se (APS) suspension laws, which have now been adopted by 38 states, including California. California was also the first state to adopt an illegal per se BAC threshold of .08% in defining drunk driving. Both of these laws were recommended in a 1987 R&D policy monograph (Report No. 112). Recent evaluations of the separate and joint effects of the two laws (APS and .08% BAC) were published by R&D in 1995 and 1997 (Reports No. 158 and 167). These reports provide evidence that both laws were effective in further deterring impaired driving among the general public and in reducing subsequent accidents and recidivism among arrested DUI offenders. DUI offenders arrested or convicted subsequent to the new laws had 25-40% fewer reoffenses and accidents in the subsequent year compared to DUI offenders prior to the new laws.

  • Preparation of BAC nomograms. In 1982 R&D initiated an issue paper recommending that information on BAC levels and seat belts be included in the California Driver Handbook. Legislation was subsequently passed requiring that BAC charts be included in the handbook and that questions on alcohol be included on the written test. DDSL and R&D jointly developed the official state BAC charts for dissemination to the public and for inclusion with the driver's license handbook. These BAC nomograms are also included in annual vehicle registration notices and other material mailed to drivers.
  • Development and implementation of a DUI management information system. The need for a management information system (MIS) for providing continuous and timely data on the effectiveness of California's DUI enforcement, adjudication, and license control process was identified in a series of previous R&D studies (Report Nos. 90, 97 & 112). In 1988, R&D obtained an Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) grant to develop a prototype DUI-MIS for California. With the input of a task force of representatives from all components of the DUI system, a DUI-MIS was designed and developed. In 1990, the Legislature enacted AB 757, which mandated the very type of DUI data reporting and monitoring system which the task force had just developed. As of 1997, six annual reports have been produced. These reports have been instrumental in identifying and correcting weaknesses in the DUI system, including deficiencies in the adjudication of DUI arrests and reporting of DUI violations, convictions and sanctions.
  • Drugs - traffic safety nexus. In 1994, R&D published a study (Report No. 142) documenting an association between drug-involvement defined by being arrested for some type of drug-related offense (sales, possession, use, etc.) and increased motor-vehicle accident risk. This report was used by the administration in enacting legislation suspending the driver's license of convicted drug offenders pursuant to federal anti-drug legislation. (The license suspension authority subsequently sunsetted and had not yet been re-authorized by the California Legislature as of this writing.)

Direct evidence that drug use is a significant factor in impaired driving can be found both in an R&D-produced review for management of the epidemiological literature and in R&D's Report No. 161. The latter study found that convicted DUI offenders with very low or zero BAC levels (and therefore ostensibly drug-impaired offenders) had unusually high DUI recidivism rates. In fact, their rates were higher than those of DUI offenders with clearly illegal levels of alcohol (BAC .10-.20), and equal to those of offenders with very extreme BAC levels (BAC " 0.29%).

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