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DUIs (driving under the influence) or OWIs (operating while intoxicated), as they are now commonly referred to, are big business.

They are big business for state and local governments that will get $2,500 to $2,700 each time they convict someone, and for attorneys who will charge between $3,000 and $7,000, depending on the case.

Today, under the new "super-drunk laws," first-time offenders found guilty of DUI may find themselves paying as much as $6,000 in fines and other costs, spend up to six months in jail, as well as do 360 hours of community service (that's eight hours every other Saturday for approximately 2 years), have an ignition interlock device installed on their car (at an additional instillation cost of $200, plus a monthly service fee of approximately $100), and attend and complete an alcohol treatment program.

A super-drunk refers to a driver who has a blood-alcohol content above .17. While for the majority that would mean not driving after more than four or five drinks in a couple of hours, for others this could be as low as two or three drinks depending on their weight and tolerance. Tens of thousands of Michiganians are arrested annually for alcohol-related driving offenses, according to information provided by Michigan State Police.

This means tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens are potentially at risk of finding themselves now with serious criminal convictions, potentially affecting their employment, family life and prestige in the community.

What makes DUI convictions such an anomaly is that unlike the majority of crimes with such high penalties, "perpetrators" do not even know for sure that they are committing a crime until they are actually pulled over and given a Breathalyzer. Most never cause any injuries. Last year, of the 51,949 reported accidents in Michigan that resulted in personal injury, only about 7 percent involved alcohol at all, in any amount.

This is not to say that drinking and driving is not a serious problem. One person seriously injured or killed by a drunk driver is one too many, and we should continue to be vigilant in our efforts to reduce the number of people operating vehicles while intoxicated.

But each year, no matter how low the federal and state authorities set the legal limit and how high the penalties are, tens of thousands of Michiganians are still going to drink and drive. If you are a drinker, you probably will, attorneys and judges will, religious and other community leaders will, and even many of the politicians themselves who supported the DUI legislation themselves will.

Rather than make everyone pay thousands of dollars, take up space in our jails, do endless hours of community service, and force many people who don't have a drinking problem to take Alcoholics Anonymous classes, why don't we get a little more creative in our policymaking?

If we are serious about "safe alternatives" to drinking and driving, how come the buses stop running at 10 or 11 p.m. in most municipalities? How come our cars get towed if we choose not to drive home drunk and leave it overnight? Instead of a lineup of police cars outside bars at closing time, how come we don't have a lineup of affordable transportation?

And if we are really serious about "safe alternatives," in cities with high populations of students and younger professionals, how come we don't have free transportation continually looping around the downtown to surrounding neighborhoods?

The fact that DUIs are big business is part of the explanation for our lack of investment in safer alternatives, but I do not think that is the whole explanation. As a society we are stuck in a mindset where we continue to believe the best and/or only way to encourage behavior is through punishment. Not only is that not true, but it is also morally objectionable to punish behavior so severely when we have not offered any reasonable, convenient or affordable alternatives.

David T. Madden is an attorney at Madden & Associates Legal Services, PLLC in Ann Arbor.

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