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Learning from Iowa

For years states and municipalities have tried just about every legal stratagem to help curb the drunken driving problem in the United States. Yet in many communities judges and juries are loath to impose severe penalties, in part because of a recognition that the drinking driver is often as not in need of special counseling. Now, thanks to the experience of a few states, it is clear that there is one step that could be taken at the state level to quickly reduce liquor-related traffic accidents: swift administrative license revocation - right at the scene of the arrest.

Minnesota pioneered administrative revocation in 1976. Today similar laws are on the books in Iowa, West Virginia, and Delaware. Oklahoma will join the list later this spring. Utah is now considering such a measure. Alaska, California, and North Carolina are also expected to take up the issue this year.

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How does it work? Take Iowa, where such a law was enacted after unanimous passage in both houses of the legislature last year. Persons stopped for suspected drunken driving are asked to take a sobriety test on the spot. If they refuse, they face a substantial penalty. If they take the test, and fail, their license is suspended right then and there. Revocation for first offenders is 120 days; for second offenders, 240 days; for subsequent offenders, one year. The driver has the right to appeal the loss of the license or contest the administering of the sobriety test. But during the period of appeal the suspension remains in effect. Exceptions are made for revocation in cases of extreme hardship.

In the six months since the law has been in place in Iowa, close to 8,000 persons have had their licenses suspended for varying periods of time. In the great majority of cases, blood alcohol readings were found to be especially high , indicating that law-enforcement authorities were not abusing their right to stop a motorist for a sobriety check. It might also be noted that the alcohol-related accident rate fell sharply during the same period.

The President's Commission on Drunk Driving endorsed such a proposal in its interim report. The issue is not one of severely penalizing the drinking driver. Indeed, what is good about the revocation concept is that it is uniform, applying equally to all motorists. Under such a law, no motorist apprehended for drinking in one locality would face a punishment more - or less - severe than a motorist in another jurisdiction. The law also puts the responsibility back where it belongs: in the hands of each motorist.

State legislatures meeting this year might well consider Iowa's experience.

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