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 V.15 No.15 | April 13 - 19, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

“Silver Bullets”

Drunk driving and mental illness need better solutions

The hearts of our local policymakers must brim over with optimism. I can think of no other possible explanation for why they're falling so gullibly for such goofy silver-bullet solutions for complex social problems, such as Kendra's Law and an ordinance requiring the publication of DWI offender photos in newspapers.

In both cases, the response to doubts about the efficacy of such patently hopeless measures amounts to not much more than: “Well, nothing else is working, so why not try this?”

Some policymakers have even suggested that anyone not in step with either proposal must somehow be against finding any solution to mental illness or drunk driving.

The attitude is, apparently, that we shouldn't oppose these ideas unless we have a better mousetrap to put forward. But it seems to me that flailing around wildly could be worse than doing nothing.

I asked a friend of mine, for example, whether he thought the mugshots-of-drunk-drivers scheme might reduce the incidence of DWI. He is, after all, working as an alcoholism counselor in a publicly financed department, someone who regularly works at getting court referrals into treatment programs. If anyone ought to have some insight into the problem, you would think it might be him.

Turns out no one from the City Council (where the DWI measure is being debated) has even contacted the agency they finance to deal with this problem to get some actual data on the subject. Instead, the decision to pass the measure will be based on raw gut reaction, pure emotion and conventional wisdom. Not information, science, expertise or experience.

The logic chain goes something like this: “I don't drive drunk; indeed, I'd be embarrassed and humiliated to ever be arrested for drunken driving ... so, why don't we embarrass and humiliate those arrested for drunken driving so they will stop doing it?”

Think about it. We already publish their names. We throw them in jail. We seize their cars and sell them at auction. We force them to get into treatment programs. We fine them large sums of money to cover court costs and penalize them financially. They lose jobs, wives, families. And still the arrest totals climb.

So how will running their photographs up the ante? I'm sorry, it just doesn't compute. Aside from being a financial windfall for the daily newspaper that gets the contract, I think this silver bullet will be a complete dud.

A page in the morning paper made up of 400 portraits every month (or 100 every week) will quickly become but a blur in the public's mind, yet another page to skip over while looking for last night's ball scores, the crossword or the obituaries.

If you and your family and circle of friends don't read the paper anyhow, where would the additional shame come from if that completely ignored publication happens to include your face on a back page?

So give the City Council an “A” for effort but an “F” for efficacy on that one. We will only make a dent on the incidence of DWI when we change this community's cultural attitude about booze.

Of course, since the industry spends billions convincing our young people that booze and fun are identical, and that driving equals freedom, we have a lot of culture change to tackle; a huge challenge.

Kendra's Law strikes me as similarly futile. The hope that passing a law to force outpatient treatment on unwilling mental patients will have a ghost of a chance of being successful in making our society safer and more humane is understandable but unreasonable.

We already have laws on the books that can commit persons dangerous to themselves or others into inpatient treatment. There are no truly infallible methods for predicting psychiatric patients' future courses in life; no magic pills capable of producing socially desirable behavior as easily as other pills stop acid indigestion or end headaches.

Families of the mentally ill would understandably like to produce that kind of beneficial gris-gris on demand for their loved ones. But it doesn't yet exist.

In both cases (mental illness and DWI), the enormity of civic frustration and the volume of people directly affected can seem overwhelming to the people we have elected to cope with social problems. It is only human to seek simple, elegant, inexpensive “solutions” instead of rolling up sleeves and actually grappling with the complexities involved.

Instead of trying to force mental patients into outpatient therapy, we need to devote resources to expanding treatments they are likely to want to use. And instead of trying to shame and punish people who drive under the influence, we should be expanding efforts to change public attitudes and to treat alcohol abuse.

The bottom line, though, is that there is no quick and easy escape hatch from confronting the issues head-on. And realism forces me to note that, in addition, we are going to have to spend serious money on the issues. Yes, the bottom line actually turns out to be the bottom line. Things we are serious about get money thrown at them. Those we aren't serious about get silver bullets tossed their way.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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