Punishment not complete solution for drinking, driving offenders

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Desmond Colohan

By Desmond Colohan (commentary)

In today’s lead editorial supporting stronger punishments for repeat drunk drivers, your writer concludes with “If the latest changes don’t work … Those affected will have no one to blame but themselves.”  There is an excellent  2010 paper called “Understanding Drunk Driving” by the Canadian Working Group on DWI System Improvement  and published by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Ottawa. Let me try to summarize its most important points regarding common misunderstandings about drunk drivers.

1. All drunk drivers are the same: The only thing that drunk drivers have in common is a propensity to drink and drive — some do it infrequently, others do it often; some are at relatively low risk of causing a collision, others are at very high risk. They come fro

2. “There but for the grace of God go I”: Some people may be inclined to sympathize with the drunk driver because they may have drunk and driven themselves. Research shows that most offenders drink and drive several times before they are caught. Sympathy should be reserved for the victims or potential victims who escaped a tragic encounter with a drunk driver, rather than for the drunk driver.

3. “One-size-fits-all” is an effective strategy: A comprehensive approach is essential to reduce recidivism and achieve long-term risk reduction. We need to understand that low level interventions are more appropriate for low-risk offenders because research shows that intervening too severely can do more harm than good. For high-risk offenders, sanctions should balance punishment, surveillance, and rehabilitation.

4. Drunk drivers will not change their behavior: Relapse is expected when dealing with alcohol dependency but, as long as the addiction continues to be addressed, progress is usually made. Gains can be offset by setbacks.  In order for treatment to be effective, interventions must be tailored to the needs of individual offenders — this is called treatment matching.

5. Treatment is “soft on crime”: It is commonly believed that treatment is an ineffective alternative to punishment.  In fact, many offenders would rather spend time in jail than enroll in treatment, because treatment requires sustained effort and a willingness to confront personal issues. Research shows that treatment is a cost-effective solution. Interventions that combine a balance between punishment, surveillance, and rehabilitation have the best outcomes.

6. Increasing penalties increases deterrence: It is a common misconception that getting “tough on crime” increases the deterrent effect of sanctions amongst re-offenders.

The justice system is only effective if offenders are rational — i.e., if all offenders think like law-abiding citizens and are deterred by harsh penalties. The decision to drive after consuming alcohol is believed by many to be a rational one and, therefore, offenders should be punished for their irresponsible decisions.  In some cases, drunk drivers are aware that their behavior is unacceptable but they also suffer from an addiction and/or may hold anti-social beliefs. As a consequence, they may try to justify or excuse their actions because they are unable to control their drinking, believe that they are unlikely to get caught or feel that they are above the law.

Offenders do need to be held accountable for their actions but the crucial role that alcohol addiction or mental health issues may play in their unacceptable behavior should also be considered. Such offenders are unlikely to weigh the potential costs and benefits of their actions. Consequently, punishment alone is unlikely to deter them in the future.

Deficits in cognitive functioning seen among drunk drivers include impairment of memory and of executive functioning (which helps one plan ahead, regulate behavior, and curtail negative behaviours). This makes it challenging for repeat offenders to learn and retain information.

Since sanctions frequently are imposed months after the commission of the criminal act, it becomes less likely that the offender will still associate the punishment with the behavior. Excessively harsh penalties induce offenders to “opt-out” of the licensing system so that they cannot be tracked.

The bottom line is that punishment is not a complete solution. Positive reinforcement enables most offenders to feel a sense of accomplishment and provides them with the motivation to continue working toward behavior change and to refrain from driving while impaired. We all need to work together.


Desmond Colohan is a P.E.I. coroner with an interest in chronic pain and addictions.



Organizations: Canadian Working Group, DWI System Improvement, Traffic Injury Research Foundation

Geographic location: Ottawa, P.E.I.

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