April 2005

Alphabet soup

By David Feela

Prisoners supposedly pay for their crimes by hammering out license plates in our national prisons. Perhaps the practice appeals to the public’s desire for justice, but punitive measures may have gone too far in New Hampshire where inmates would likely be forced to turn out plates with the State’s motto, “Live Free or Die.” That sounds a little harsh.

So does the notion that originated in Ohio, where repeat DWI offenders are asked to display “whiskey plates,” a license plate on every vehicle they own announcing to the world their inclination to drink and drive. The plates are designed to call attention to themselves, often beginning with the letter W, red letters against a yellow background.

It’s likely the color red was selected to shout a warning at unwary motorists across three lanes of traffic, or to remind the driver that he or she shouldn’t be behind the wheel with bloodshot eyes. The logic behind choosing yellow for a background color is more inscrutable, but I’d say it represents cowardice on the part of lawmakers who refuse to get serious about getting drunk drivers off the road.

Illinois recently considered initiating a similar program for three-time offenders; Minnesota already has one in place. I find myself wondering just how effective a whiskey-plate mentality can be, for if ordinary humiliation changed behavior, then simply surviving high school should have made most of us perfect people by now.

Somebody named Cliff posted this bit of wisdom on a TalkLeft web site: “I’m wondering about the utility of it? I mean, if I’m behind the former drunk then I’m warned, but if he’s coming at me at an intersection then it’s not much help. I say we use those old Mary Kay pink Cadillacs!” Or, here’s Wile E. Coyote himself with an original suggestion: “Can we get them vanity plates? Do some advertising: BUD 4U?”

The idea that humiliation can effectively deter convicted drivers from drinking when they get behind the wheel seems ludicrous. I can visualize what happened in Minnesota where a secret society called MAFGAY (Mothers Against Feeling Good About Yourself) lobbied the legislation into law, convinced that if enough good drivers stare at the offenders while they idle at intersections, the message “Don’t Drink and Drive” will be translated into an alcoholic’s worst nightmare: “Bad driver!”

I’m not pretending drunk driving doesn’t pose a serious problem, but circumventing our C o n s t i t u t i o n seems to me to be an even greater risk. Granting police the power to pull these drivers over at any time without immediate and obvious probable cause scares me more than the thought that some driver on the road might be drunk. What if the driver is not the potential drunk, but his or her spouse? Maybe even an offspring, friend, or (God help us all) a distant relative visiting from Colorado?

Even if whiskey plates had the power to pull every sober driver to the side of the road and allow the miscreant through, it still wouldn’t be a good idea. It’s time to put an end to a program that amounts to public flogging before it gains national popularity. Puritan democracy was and still is anything but pure. Two DWIs should result in the driver’s license being taken away, not just the licence plates.

I liked what David said on his web posting: “The whole thing makes very little sense to me. If you are a third time offender, you should be MAKING license plates, not driving around with them on your car.”

If I am mistaken, though, and whiskey plates are doing a miraculous job in reducing DWIs, then perhaps the letter “S “ should become the designation for drivers convicted of doing stupid things, like turning without signals, living in the left lane, running red lights, or talking on their cell phones. A giant “U” for the uninsured. Or an “O” for drivers older than 65 who have trouble getting the car up to 55, maybe printed on a gray background.

What would it take to protect the public from those who don’t take the job of operating a motor vehicle seriously? I’m afraid there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to keep everyone from harm.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.