Rising traffic deaths a cause for alarm, and education

By Judge Earl G. Penrod

Police Line Do Not Cross

Traffic fatalities have increased by 14 percent over the past two years, the most for a two-year period in more than half a century, according to the National Safety Council. Last year alone, more than 40,000 people died in traffic accidents.

Those numbers should alarm judges and make them realize the importance of handling impaired-driving cases more effectively, says Indiana judge Earl Penrod, who recently became a senior judge after serving 34 years with the Gibson County Superior Court. He has taught at the NJC since 2003 and will be instructing the College’s upcoming Impaired Driving Case Essentials course.

An improved economy and lower gas prices have led to more cars being on the road and, predictably, rising numbers of fatalities. Distracted driving from emerging technologies such as smart phones has also become increasingly common. Yet one of society’s oldest transgressions remains the No. 1 problem: impaired driving.

About one-third of all traffic fatalities involve drivers impaired by consumption of drugs or alcohol, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told The New York Times, “It’s still the same things that are killing drivers—[unbuckled seat] belts, booze and speed.”

One of the best tools available to judges in dealing with impaired-driving cases, Penrod says, is an understanding of evidence-based practices and available resources. 

Evidence-based sentencing involves judges using information and research about offender risk, needs and responsivity to guide an effective and fitting sentence. An explicit goal of this practice is to reduce recidivism. Research shows that most impaired-driving offenders will not return to court, yet about one-third will.

A first step is to use assessment and screening tools to understand the defendant appearing before you better. Judges can then tailor responses, such as mandated substance-abuse treatment, to address the specific circumstances and needs of each defendant. A related approach involves the establishment or use of DWI courts, which follow the problem-solving approach employed by drug courts.

“Although there’s no specific punch list where you can check all the boxes and solve the issue, judges need to know about all the resources and techniques available,” says Penrod, who is the American Bar Association Judicial Fellow in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fellows serve as a liaison between judges and the NHTSA.

Some judges, however, might not have access to elaborate resources such as a DWI court or probate system. Penrod also instructs on low-cost tools and approaches, including using incentives to motivate behavior change. Other free resources are readily available online, such as the NHTSA’s “A Guide to Sentencing DWI Offenders” or “Community Supervision of DWI Offenders.”

Although many people associate DUI with drunk driving, drugged driving is increasing. One likely reason: 28 states have legalized marijuana in some capacity, including seven states and Washington, D.C., with legal recreational use.

Decades of scientific research led to the creation of a 0.08 blood-alcohol content barometer that is used by all 50 states, but no comparable standard exists for marijuana. In some states, a certain amount of drugs in one’s system constitutes a violation of the law.

Penrod says judges need to understand these emerging standards. They also need to know the science and pharmacology of drugs and be able to address drug-recognition experts who testify.

“Judges need to understand that this is a complex area, and even if it’s just a misdemeanor, from an evidentiary point of view they can still be one of your most difficult cases.

“The continued carnage on our roads as a result of impaired driving is incredible,” Penrod adds. “Judges aren’t the lone stakeholder on the issue, but the importance of their role can’t be overstated.”

Related Course

Impaired Driving Case Essentials 
May 8 – 11, 2017 | Location Reno, NV | Tuition $1,079 | Conference Fee $289

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