Overall Effectiveness Concerns: Most of these measures are widely used. Their respective effectiveness has been examined in research studies. Despite some positive research findings, the balance of evidence regarding the effectiveness of these countermeasures remains inconclusive.
The standard court sanctions for DWI offenses are driver’s license suspension or revocation, fines, jail, and community service. All States use some combination of these sanctions. Details of each State’s laws may be found in NHTSA’s Digest of Impaired Driving and Selected Beverage Control Laws (NHTSA, 2017a). Some States set mandatory minimum levels for some sanctions, which often increase for second and subsequent offenders.
DWI offenders also may have their driver’s licenses revoked or suspended administratively and may have sanctions imposed on their vehicles or license plates. See the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Section 1.1, Administrative License Revocation or Suspension, and the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Section 4.3, Vehicle and License Plate Sanctions, for discussions of these sanctions. See also NHTSA’s Guide to Sentencing DWI Offenders (NHTSA, 2006) for an overview of sanctions and sentencing practices for judges and prosecutors, with extensive references. The Guide also includes screening and brief intervention, alcohol treatment, and DWI courts.
License suspension or revocation: All States allow post-conviction license actions. As of 2015 there were 19 States and the District of Columbia that set mandatory minimum lengths for first offenders (NHTSA, 2017a). This suspension or revocation typically runs concurrently with any administrative license action. In most States, offenders may obtain an occupational or hardship license during part or all the revocation or suspension period.
Although administrative license actions are highly effective in reducing crashes (see the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Section 1.1), court-imposed license actions appear less effective. A study of 46 States found that post-conviction license suspension had no discernible effects on alcohol-related fatal crashes (Wagenaar & Maldonado-Molina, 2007). As discussed in the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Section 1.1, some DWI offenders continue to drive with suspended or revoked licenses, and many DWI offenders do not reinstate their licenses when they are eligible to do so. Consequently, long court-imposed license suspensions may do little to reduce recidivism. Instead, it may be important to encourage DWI offenders to reinstate their licenses, but with appropriate controls such as ignition interlocks (Section 4.2) and close monitoring (Section 4.4).
Fines: Most States impose fines on DWI offenders. As of 2015 there were 29 States and the District of Columbia that had mandatory minimum fines for first offenders, ranging from $200 (West Virginia; BAC ≥ .15 g/dL) to $1,500 (Alaska) (NHTSA, 2017a). In addition to fines, offenders often face substantial costs for license reinstatement, mandated alcohol education or treatment, insurance rate increases, and legal fees. Available evidence suggests that fines appear to have little effect on reducing alcohol-impaired driving. For example, Wagenaar et al. (2008) examined alcohol-related fatal crashes across 32 States and concluded that mandatory fines “do not have clearly demonstrable general deterrent or preventive effects” (p. 992). Another study from Australia found the size of fines was unrelated to recidivism rates among DWI offenders (Weatherburn & Moffatt, 2011). Even though fines may not reduce alcohol-impaired driving, they do help support the system financially.
According to a report by the European Transport Safety Council (2016), most countries in Europe impose fines that are not income related as a sanction for alcohol offenders. Fines are preferred over jail sentences because of a higher benefit-to-cost ratio and the additional support they offer to alcohol programs through the earned money. Imprisonment is most common when alcohol-related crashes result in a fatality. In addition, the effectiveness of sanctions is enhanced with strong enforcement and when integrated into other treatment programs.
Jail: All States allow some DWI offenders to be sentenced to jail. The length of sentences varies by State and often depends on the number of prior convictions, the driver’s BAC, whether the crash resulted in an injury or fatality, whether a child passenger was present (child endangerment laws), and several other factors. Additionally, some States allow community service in lieu of jail. Details of each State’s laws may be found in NHTSA’s Digest of Impaired Driving and Selected Beverage Control Laws (NHTSA, 2017a).
Jail is the most severe and most contentious of the DWI sanctions. Jail is expensive. In 2015 the average annual cost per inmate among 45 States was $33,274. Alabama had the lowest cost at $14,780, and the highest was in New York at $69,355 (Mai & Subramanian, 2017). Judges and prosecutors may be reluctant to use limited jail space for DWI offenders rather than “real” criminals. Offenses with mandatory jail terms may be pled down, or judges simply may ignore the mandatory jail requirement (Robertson & Simpson, 2002).
Research on the effectiveness of jail is equivocal at best (Voas & Lacey, 2011, pp. 215-216; NTSB, 2000). Very short (48-hour) jail sentences for first offenders may be effective (NTSB,
2000) and the threat of jail may be effective as a deterrent (as is done in DWI and drug courts), but other jail policies appear to have little effect. Wagenaar et al. (2000) reviewed 18 studies and concluded: “The balance of the evidence clearly suggests the ineffectiveness of mandatory jail sentence policies” (p. 12). In fact, they find “numerous studies that indicate that [mandatory jail] might be a counterproductive policy” (p. 12) that increases alcohol-related crashes.
Community service: Many States allow community service as part of DWI offenders’ sentences and 9 States allow community service in lieu of mandatory jail for first-time offenders (NHTSA, 2017a). Community service can provide benefits to society if offenders perform useful work, but even if appropriate jobs can be found there are costs for program operation, offender supervision, and liability. The effects of community service programs on alcohol-impaired driving have not been evaluated (Century Council, 2008).
Victim Impact Panels: DWI offenders are often required to attend victim impact panels, in which offenders hear from people whose lives have been permanently altered by impaired drivers. An estimated 400,000 offenders each year attend victim impact panels conducted by more than 200 MADD chapters across the United States (Voas & Lacey, 2011). Although victim impact panels are intuitively appealing, most studies suggest they do not reduce recidivism (Crew & Johnson, 2011; deBaca et al., 2001; Shinar & Compton, 1995; Wheeler et al., 2004).
Vehicle Impoundment: A 7-day vehicle impoundment program implemented as an additional penalty in Ontario, Canada, in 2010 has been associated with decreases in alcohol-related driving offenses. The program targets alcohol convictions specific to driving with a BAC> .08 g/dL, refusal to comply to roadside screening, and violations of license suspension or ignition interlock conditions. One study found a 29% decrease in which recidivism in the 3 months following a suspension was attributed to the 7-day vehicle impound program (Byrne et al., 2016).