Close the Gaps on Drunk Drivers

This much is certain: John Ernest Castro never should have been behind the wheel the night Mahdad Koosh was killed in a crash on the Golden State Freeway near Santa Clarita. Castro, who is scheduled to be arraigned next week on murder charges, stands accused of driving drunk and causing the January accident that killed Koosh, a 22-year-old engineer driving cross-country to start a new job at NASA. But Castro--who has at least eight prior drunk-driving convictions and a revoked driver's license--shouldn't have been on the highway at all.

That he was points up how habitual drunk drivers can slip through the legal system without the kind of severe long-term consequences they deserve. The bulk of Castro's convictions occurred before a 1990 state law that allows prosecutors to seek felony charges after three drunk-driving convictions in seven years. So even though he served a few short prison terms, Castro never faced the kind of serious charges warranted by a clearly dangerous record.

So far this year, the California Highway Patrol has arrested nearly 2,400 people for driving drunk and responded to more than 330 accidents caused by drunks in Los Angeles County. That's just on the highways. Local police departments arrest many more on city streets. A good number of those arrested have, like Castro, been caught before.

Yes, Castro's license was revoked after a 1994 conviction. That didn't matter much. Drivers caught without a license--or one that's been revoked or suspended--face immediate impound of their car by police or the CHP. But only if they get caught. The Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that as many as 10% of drivers on the road don't have a valid license. That frightening statistic highlights how easy it is for scofflaws to slip behind the wheel of a potentially deadly machine.

As any student about to get a license knows, driving is a privilege, not a right. Habitual drunk drivers lose that privilege--and appropriately so. But when that's not enough, prosecutors and judges ought to be more aggressive in seeking and dishing out the kind of punishment that sends a clear message: Drunk driving is a serious crime and will be dealt with as such.

With prisons and jails bulging, incarceration is not the answer for all offenders--although some do belong behind bars. Creative sentences--such as installing breath testers in vehicles--that put the burden back on the drunk driver work. But so can stricter enforcement of vehicle licensing and registration laws. The point is to get problem drivers off the road before they claim innocent lives. It's a tough job, but one worth the effort.

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