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Watch out for those sober drivers

by: Submitted photo,

The Oregon State Police recently reported that they arrested fewer drunken drivers during the New Year's than they did last year.

Despite this good news (the number of arrests dropped from 88 in 2005 to 81 in 2006), 'authority figures' continue to sagely warn you not to drive drunk. It is good advice. About half the fatal traffic collisions in Oregon involve drinking drivers.

That also means about half the highway fatalities are caused by sober drivers. We have a peculiar double standard when it comes to highway fatalities. We are indignant over senseless deaths caused by drunken drivers. We are less indignant over senseless deaths caused by sober drivers.

There is no Mothers against Sober Drivers, no Children of Adult Sober Drivers, no Students against Sober Drivers, no Sober Drivers Anonymous. There are no public service announcements on television urging people to not drive sober, no campaign slogans like Friends Do Not Let Friends Drive Sober.

Drunken drivers who kill get the front page. Sober drivers who kill get the second section … despite mounting evidence that driving when you are tired, under the influence of medication or yacking on your cell phone is just as dangerous as drinking and driving.

Despite a dramatic reduction in deaths attributed to drunken driving, it is still drunks who get the attention of politicians. Most states allow .10 blood alcohol before a driver is considered impaired. All states, including Oregon, now have a .08 blood alcohol limit and the Legislature has resisted efforts to reduce it to .04.

Fatalities from drunk driving dropped from estimates as high as 70 percent of all highway fatalities in the mid-1980s to around 50 percent today.

Chronic alcoholics are now the largest cause of drunken driving collisions and it is clear 'tougher' laws do not discourage problem drinkers from driving even when they have lost their licenses.

Whatever the solution to this problem may be, it is not reducing the allowable blood alcohol standard to unrealistic levels and making potential felons out of anyone who has a drink dining out. Oregon's traffic fatality problem is caused more by lax licensing than liquor.

Oregon is widely known as a state that lets anybody drive - and we do. The law requiring formal driver training or 100 hours behind the wheel with another adult prior to licensing is limited to those under 18.

Budget cuts stripped driver training from most school districts. Some school districts now contract with private driver training businesses to meet students at school because insurance companies require formal driver training before teenagers can get discounted automobile insurance.

But for most Oregonians over 17, getting a driver's license means passing a brief written exam and a short road test that no longer even requires parallel parking skills.

Once licensed, this ticket to freedom and autonomy can be renewed by mail for a token fee every few years with little further evaluation of the driver's abilities until you reach an age when the folks at the Department of Motor Vehicles invite you to renew your license in person so they can see if you are still capable of driving down the road. Informally, it's called the 'dodder test.'

Few lawmakers will publicly discuss the most effective solution to traffic fatalities - periodic driver re-examination.

Regrettably, legislators find it easier and less threatening to fulminate about drunken drivers rather than require more realistic driver training standards and periodic re-examinations and continuing driver education for careless, tired and otherwise sober drivers who are responsible for about 50 percent of the deaths on Oregon's increasingly crowded highways.

You are just as dead if you are killed by a sober driver and your family grieves just as much as any family that is the victim of a drunken driver.

I will let others warn you about drunken driving. My public service message is watch out for sober drivers. The life you save may be your own.

Columnist Russell Sadler is also an Oregon-licensed driving instructor. For more than 30 years, Sadler's daily radio and television commentaries were heard on broadcast stations in Oregon, Southwest Washington and Northern California. His weekly newspaper column appears regularly in many newspapers throughout the region. Today, he lives aboard a 30-foot trawler and travels regularly to Salem, Eugene, and Ashland. He is a registered Independent.