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EDITORIAL: MADD about regulation
President Obama's pick to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration raises a few red flags. If confirmed by the Senate, Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, will drive motorists over the cliff with regulation.
The nation's traffic-safety czar has broad powers to control the roads and road-going habits of Americans. Mr. Hurley has a history of pushing laws that harass millions of law-abiding citizens to ensnare a few lawbreakers. He supports returning the 55 mph speed limit to our highways as well as roadblocks and random pullovers to make sure drivers aren't doing anything wrong. This methodology is based on a presumption of guilt - not innocence - of the average driver who is doing nothing wrong.
Mr. Hurley has promoted a mania of overregulation at MADD. Absent from his advocacies is the principle that a punishment should fit the crime, or that a crime even needs to be committed to incur a penalty. Under this influence, MADD has been lobbying to lower the allowable blood-alcohol content (BAC) for drivers to .04 - which means one glass of Pinot can land anyone behind bars. We do not condone drinking and driving, but the constant lowering of BAC limits has separated what is punishable from what is actually dangerous.
As a result of MADD-fueled binges for tougher laws, extreme drunken driving punishments - such as loss of driving privileges, jail time, fines and legal fees beyond $10,000 - often apply to individuals who were not drunk and in some cases were not even driving. Last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously upheld a driving-under-the-influence conviction against a man who was sleeping off his bender in his car even though the keys were not in the ignition. In 2005, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a DUI sentence for a tipsy man riding a motorized skateboard. The Georgia State Police charged a woman with drunken driving for riding a horse.
Such absurd cases will continue to proliferate as long as the breathalyzer machine is the sole determinant of guilt rather than evidence of unsafe conduct. Machines are prone to error, and basing guilt on a digital reading leaves little room for the specific facts of an individual situation. The same reliance on machines can be seen in Mr. Hurley's obsession with red-light and speed cameras. Mr. Hurley is a former board member of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running. The innocuous-sounding outfit frequently testifies at congressional hearings as if it were a nonprofit victim's advocacy group. In reality, it is a well-heeled lobbying shop for big business.
The so-called National Campaign's phone number - (202) 828-9100 - is answered by a receptionist at the public-relations firm Blakey and Agnew. Among that firm's big-ticket clients are the traffic-camera companies Redflex Traffic Systems of Australia, Gastometer BV of the Netherlands and Lasercraft Inc. of Britain. These foreign corporations all seek to rewrite state laws to allow machines to issue traffic-camera tickets, thus reaping huge profits for the companies that operate them - including Redflex, Gastometer and Lasercraft.
The position of NHTSA chief requires an administrator of sound judgment, not a zealot beholden to special interests. Mr. Hurley's associations and background raise the specter that he could use NHTSA regulations and safety grants to benefit his friends and coerce states into adopting his overbearing pet policies. Mr. Hurley should be offered one (but only one) for the road and sent on his way.
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