Here we stand as a community staring into the cold light following a dark tragedy. Santa Fe Mayor David Coss has pledged swift action in response to the deaths of four teenagers in an accident that also has irrevocably altered the lives of many people, exponentially rippling out from those closest to the people and the scene.
“Tougher laws, education and treatment,” is the triad the mayor proposes to discuss at a joint meeting of the Santa Fe City Council and the Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners, scheduled to take place at 5 pm, Wednesday July 8 in City Council chambers (but don’t be surprised if the meeting is moved to the Santa Fe Community Convention Center because of high attendance).
Unfortunately, the community-wide effort is a bit fractured from the get-go, with another consortium of organizations (Impact DWI, The Santa Fe Community Foundation and MADD) planning a meeting from 6 to 9 pm the same night in the Jemez Room at the Santa Fe Community College.
While that hiccup will no doubt be resolved into some kind of unified front, the question of what proposed solutions and actions to move forward is one that merits close attention. When we face issues that affect society as a whole—such as alcoholism and drunk driving—we have a tendency to believe societal and regulatory responses will address what are essentially problems of personal accountability. Organizations like MADD have made great strides in public awareness and law enforcement efforts, but such organizations simultaneously diffuse individual empowerment and responsibility: Someone out there is dealing with it so it’s not my problem.
Some of the suggestions put forward this week will be extreme, both in the proposed ramifications and in terms of delusionary effectiveness. One will be that Santa Fe should be a dry county. Such a thing would not only be economically disastrous, but profoundly pointless. Our proximity to various pueblos would only mean that driving becomes a necessity for alcohol consumption and the outlaw practice of drinking would only encourage the recklessness that accompanies all furtive behavior.
Another extreme proposal will be to move toward mandatory interlock devices in all cars—sensible enough on the surface, but the technology doesn’t exist to make it practical. Limited use of interlocks for offenders has worked, but that breathalyzers are frequently in error by up to 15 percent and that interlock devices can get false readings from spicy food, anything with high yeast content, perfume, cologne and mouthwash, would drive the average populace insane.
Newer technology that pulls readings from the surface of the skin would presumably be subject to false readings based on hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol, as well as potentially duped by any number of ruses. This is the most important fact behind installing mandatory interlocks: All it would accomplish would be to spur innovation of technology to defeat and trick the devices.
A colossal legislative effort—impractical on anything but a national level—and a huge, burdensome expense would be quickly outmaneuvered by a few smart people with some tools and some time. If there is going to be a national effort on any front, it should be toward drivers education, which is a joke in this country. If stone-cold-sober drivers don’t grasp the implications of hurtling through space surrounded by tons of metal, how can we expect intoxicated people to take it seriously?
Tougher enforcement? Well, better processing of cases and judicial management is the place to focus those efforts—the police and sheriff’s departments are already doing their jobs. Education and treatment are areas that need better financial and community support. These are the unglamorous areas of true effectiveness.
Education and treatment are effective because they go to the core of the issue: personal accountability. I am the one who chooses to drink. I am the one who chooses to drive. I am the one who allows my friend—or even a stranger—to drive away. No law is going to make that choice. No technology is going free you of responsibility. Punishing bars or servers or store clerks absolves nothing. Education can make this point, and treatment for those who have screwed up can drive it home.
If a comprehensive investigation and trial eventually determines that Scott Owens is responsible for the accident of June 28, most people will be satisfied by the societally approved punishment of a heavy jail term. But in another sense, we will be robbing Owens of the opportunity to take responsibility for what happened. Our criminal justice system routinely mitigates true accountability with punishment, a practice that makes it easier for us to request draconian laws and Big Brother technology as a substitute for individual decision making.
Our consistent diffusion of our own actions out into a morass of shared cultural guilt allows us to pass on blame for poor financial decisions, for sub-par schools, for ineffective government representation and for all manner of ills that must somehow be someone else’s fault.
Responsibility is the counterpoint to freedom, and our eagerness to surrender the first has perilous consequences for the latter.