An Important Round in Drunk-Driver Battle

Last Monday night, a car driven by a man police say was drunk struck and killed a young Caltrans engineer working on a freeway construction project in Oceanside. As a result, a 9-month-old boy will grow up without knowing his father.

Earlier that same day, Municipal Judge Raymond Edwards Jr. saw to it that at least one chronic drunk driver will not soon be allowed to use his car to kill or maim. Edwards sentenced James A. Hibbard to an unprecedented 11 years in the county jail system.

With nine prior drunk-driving convictions, Hibbard stood before Edwards convicted of five new counts of driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. He told the judge that, after spending 115 days in jail awaiting trial and sentencing, he finally had learned his lesson. Hibbard's sister pleaded for him to be sentenced to a halfway house.

Edwards could not have known that only hours after he sentenced Hibbard, David Arthur Hoffman, 30, an associate transportation engineer with Caltrans, would be run down by a car that came careening through illuminated cone barriers as he demonstrated a new piece of equipment to other workers.

But, like all of us, Edwards no doubt can recite his own litany of tragic stories about the death and human destruction caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. Perhaps he is aware that in 1985, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 197 people lost their lives in San Diego County in alcohol-related traffic accidents.

Edwards pointed out that Hibbard had been involved in three traffic accidents and "but for the grace of God, he could have killed someone." So he threw the book at Hibbard in a way some will argue is Draconian. Certainly it is an extraordinarily harsh sentence. After all, Hibbard had only been convicted of misdemeanors.

No one can say what would have happened if Edwards had given Hibbard one more chance and placed him in a rehabilitation program. Perhaps he would have stayed sober or stayed out from behind the wheel.

But a man who accumulates 14 arrests for driving under the influence--not to mention the times he has driven drunk and not been caught--has stated loudly and clearly that he has no intention of obeying society's rules.

Why should the justice system wait until he kills some little boy's father--or some parent's child--before taking protective action?

Edwards' sentence will be appealed, and perhaps it won't stand the challenge at a higher legal level. But it was not an outrageous decision, and it may prove to be an important round in the battle to keep the roads free of drunk drivers.

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