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I. Introduction

Traffic fatalities in alcohol-related crashes rose by 4 percent between 1999 and 2000 and stayed about the same between 2000 and 2002 (NHTSA, 2003a). Alcohol-related fatalities, however, had declined by about one-third between 1982 and 1993. (Fell and Klein, 1994; NHTSA, 1995a, 1995c). The criminal justice system, the responsible Government agencies, and the public must pay more attention to the impaired-driving problem if improvement is to occur again (Fell, 1990, 2001).

Recently, 900 U.S. judges were surveyed concerning their recommendations for improvement of the DWI system. More than 80 percent reported that summaries of scientific research on the effectiveness of DWI sanctions would greatly benefit sentencing decisions and lead to greater consistency and lower recidivism rates (Robertson and Simpson, 2002).

Extent of the Problem

The extent of the DWI problem is exhibited in the following statistics:

  • For the past 6 years, more than 17,000 people have been killed annually in alcohol-related traffic crashes. In addition, approximately 300,000 people are injured annually in alcohol-related crashes (about one injury every two minutes) (NHTSA, 2003a).
  • DWI recidivism is high. Overall, it has been estimated that one-third of all drivers arrested, convicted, or adjudicated for DWI are repeat offenders (NHTSA, 1995b). Of drivers convicted of DWI in California, for example, 44 percent were reconvicted of DWI within 10 years (Peck et al., 1994).
  • Of the 42,815 traffic fatalities that occurred in 2002, an estimated 17,419 (41% or one death every 33 minutes) were alcohol-related (NHTSA, 2003a).
  • For the past 10 years, approximately 1.4 to 1.5 million drivers have been arrested annually for DWI (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003).

Who Are the DWI Offenders?

No generalization about the “typical” drinking driver applies to every offender. During any given one-year period, self-reported survey data indicated that between 17 and 27 percent of people in the United States drive shortly after drinking – this translates to between 28 and 45 million people who have driven after consuming alcohol in an average year (Balmforth, 1999). Theoretically, any of them may be arrested. Nevertheless, most impaired drivers are not arrested (Zador, Krawchuck, and Moore, 2000).

Much is known about those offenders who have been arrested and convicted of DWI. A study of DWI offenders under correctional supervision (typically repeat offenders) highlighted several differences between DWI offenders and other criminal offenders: DWI offenders are older (by approximately five years), more educated than other criminals, and more likely to be white males (Maruschak, 1999).

Maruschak listed the following additional characteristics for DWI offenders:

  • 34 percent of the offenders in jail and 8 percent of the offenders on probation reported having been convicted of three or more DWI offenses in their lifetime.
  • Approximately one in three DWI offenders on probation and two out of five in jail reported drinking alcohol daily, whereas 44 percent of jailed DWI offenders and nearly half of DWI offenders on probation report drinking at least once a week.
  • Over 37 percent of DWI offenders on probation and almost half of jailed DWI offenders showed signs of alcohol dependence (as measured by the CAGE questionnaire described in Section II, Ewing, 1984), compared to 18 percent and 25 percent of other offenders.

In a review of the drinking and driving literature, Kennedy, Isaac, and Graham (1993) found that the majority of DWI offenders:

  • Are age 25 to 45, male, white, not married, have blue-collar jobs, prefer beer and drink it frequently, tend to drink at bars and tend to be “problem drinkers” (i.e., repeat DWI offenders, drink excessively [5 or more drinks in a session], and have problems associated with alcohol use).
  • Tend to have experienced alcohol-related problems in the past and tend to be extroverted, impulsive, aggressive, hostile, and antisocial.

In addition, DWI arrestees are more likely to have more arrests for nontraffic offenses, such as assault and public drunkenness (Perrine et al., 1988; Hedlund, 1994) and have poorer physical and mental health, family problems, financial difficulties, and poor job performance (Perrine et al., 1988).

There is evidence from Maryland that anyone arrested or convicted of DWI is at a higher risk of being convicted again (Rauch et al., 2002a). There is also evidence that alcohol-impaired driving recidivism among first offenders more closely resembles that of multiple offenders than nonoffenders (Rauch et al., 2002c; Jones and Lacey, 2000). However, first offenders have been found to differ from second offenders in some respects: second offenders reported involvement in more crashes, drank at fewer locations, took more health risks, and indicated being able to drive safely after more drinks than first offenders (Nochajski and Wieczorek, 2000).

Who Are the Repeat DWI Offenders?

Of repeat DWI offenders who were interviewed while in jail, 52 percent were on probation, parole, or pre-trial release when they committed the offense for which they were imprisoned (Maruschak, 1999). Jones and Lacey (2001) conducted a literature review on repeat DWI offenders and found that they typically share the following characteristics:

  • White, male, under 40, single
  • High school or less education, non-white-collar employment
  • A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .18 or greater at arrest
  • On average, two or three prior DWI offenses, several prior “other traffic” citations
  • More prior criminal offenses than first offenders
  • Generally drink beer, in bars and at home
  • Often alcohol-dependent and have personality and psychosocial problems, including:
    • Verbal hostility
    • Assault-prone
    • Sensation seeking
    • Impulse expression
    • Personal problems
    • Low levels of responsible values and compatibility with parents

Recidivists have also been found to have more severe mental health problems (Mayhew and Simpson, 1991; McMillen, Pang, Wells-Parker, and Anderson, 1992; McMillen, Adams, Wells-Parker, Pang, and Anderson, 1992), and more frequent nontraffic (sometimes violent) criminal offenses (Adams, 1992; Gould and Gould, 1992). DWI recidivists carry a higher risk of future DWI arrests as well as involvement in both alcohol-related and non-alcohol-related crashes (Perrine et al., 1988; Gould and Gould, 1992), especially fatal crashes (Fell, 1994).

Significance of Blood Alcohol Concentration

Drivers convicted of DWI have an average blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .16 to .18 g/dL at the time of arrest (Perrine et al., 1988; Jones and Lacey, 2001).

Compared with a nondrinking driver, the relative risk of a single-vehicle fatal crash is 382 times higher for a driver with a BAC of .15 g/dL or higher (Zador, Krawchuk, and Voas, 2000). In fact, Zador et al. (2000) found that each .02 increase in the BAC of a driver more than doubled the risk of male drivers age 16 to 29 being killed in a single-vehicle crash. A recent study by McCartt, Shabanova, and Berning (2002b) notes that as of March 2001, 29 States had provisions for stronger sanctions for offenders with relatively higher BACs. Although more severe sanctions for high BAC offenders are becoming more common, only one evaluation of the effectiveness of these sanctions on DWI recidivism has been completed (McCartt and Northrup, 2004). That study found that first offenders arrested in 1998 in Minnesota (the first year of that State’s high-BAC law) who had BACs of .20 or higher had significantly lower recidivism rates than comparable offenders not subject to enhanced penalties.

However, a lower BAC at time of arrest does not rule out the possibility that the offender is at high risk for DWI recidivism (Salter and Ryan, 1976; Forman and Florenzano, 1979; Raymond, 1985; Wieczorek, Miller, and Nochajski, 1992; Yu and Williford, 1995). A thorough evaluation is needed to reliably characterize the offender’s risk for recidivism.

Reducing Recidivism

Key to reducing DWI recidivism is certain, consistent, and coordinated sentencing. Keeping the driver away from the vehicle is often an additional component of sentencing that has recently been shown to have a significant effect on DWI recidivism. It is clear that:

  • The certainty of a penalty has greater impact than its severity (Ross, 1992).
  • Sentencing for DWI should be consistent from one court to another regardless of jurisdiction, yet balanced with the need for matching offenders to the most appropriate sanctions and extent of treatment (Wells-Parker et al., 1990; Jones and Lacey, 1998).
  • Communication among the courts, evaluators, probation officers, and treatment providers should be coordinated to ensure compliance with the sentence (Popkin et al., 1988; Tauber and Huddleston, 1999).

Six factors facilitate a reduction in recidivism among DWI offenders:

  • Evaluating offenders for alcohol-related problems and recidivism risk.
  • Selecting appropriate sanctions and remedies for each offender.
  • Including provisions for appropriate alcohol abuse or alcohol-dependent treatment in the sentencing order for offenders who require such treatment.
  • Monitoring the offender’s compliance with the sanctions and treatment.
  • Acting swiftly to correct noncompliance.
  • Imposing vehicle sanctions, where appropriate, that make it difficult for offenders to drink and drive during that period (e.g., vehicle immobilization, impoundment, and alcohol ignition interlock devices) (Voas, 1999; Voas and DeYoung, 2002).