Lifesaving measures

Published 11:27 am Friday, July 6, 2007

By Staff
People who are suspected of driving while drunk in North Carolina are more likely to be convicted in court now than they were four years ago, according to a study done by the Charlotte Observer. That’s good news for everyone who takes to the state’s highways, particularly now, when many families are making plans for summer travel.
Of the people charged with driving while impaired in 2006, 72 percent who took their cases to trial were convicted, according to a statewide analysis done by the Charlotte Observer and reported by The Associated Press. Four of the state’s judicial districts had conviction rates of 90 percent or greater, according to the report.
That reality is not a bad one. A DWI conviction this year could save a defendant from a manslaughter conviction later. More importantly, it could save lives.
North Carolina ranks sixth in the country for alcohol-related traffic fatalities, according to the state Web site for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In 2005, there were 1,534 traffic-related fatalities in North Carolina. Of those, 549 — or 36 percent — were alcohol-related deaths. In 414 cases, each driver had a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 — the state’s mark for being drunk — or higher.
When it comes to convicting DWI suspects, three counties in the mountains do a lot more than talk about it. Transylvania, Rutherford and McDowell counties have 97-percent conviction rates, according to the AP report.
But that’s a bar that some counties aren’t even close to reaching. Statistics for the Daily News coverage area were not immediately available, but Wake County, home of the capital city, had a conviction rate of only 31 percent in 2006. In celebrating the positive figures of many counties, the negative ones must not be lost or forgotten.
In counties with higher conviction rates, lawyer Laughrun said he thinks police are making stronger cases and prosecutors are better prepared to argue DWI cases in court, according to the AP account. Those stronger cases and increased convictions mean that more would-be victims make it home safely..
DWI convictions may go up even more because of a new law that took effect in December. Legislators changed the law so a blood-alcohol reading of 0.08 could be enough to convict a defendant of driving while drunk. The new law also limits how much leeway a judge can have in deciding a DWI case. Those changes may result in an average conviction rate of 90 percent statewide, the AP reported.
In a presentation to Southside High School students this spring, agent David Williams with the N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement Agency said he wants students to understand “the serious and deadly consciences of drinking and driving.”
Students aren’t the only ones who need to understand those serious and deadly consequences. And it’s encouraging to see that we live in a state where there is newfound, more aggressive enforcement of drunken-driving laws. All of our futures depend on that.