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Legislative Report District 13: Is changing the law enough?

West Fargo experienced a community tragedy this summer, when the lives of a vibrant, young family from our community were cut short by the senseless act of an intoxicated driver who was driving the wrong way on Interstate 94.

This incident has brought a variety of reactions, some expected, some perhaps unusual.

Following the tragedy, I was asked by the media for a comment perhaps because I've spent the majority of my tenure in the Legislature on the Judiciary Committee, among others, and because I represent the community where the family lived. My response was two-fold, first expressing the shock and sadness we all felt at this terrible event, and second, expressing the concern that changes in the law may be necessary, but that changes in societal attitudes are essential, if we hope to lessen the likelihood of such tragedies in the future.

Over the years that I've served in the North Dakota Legislature, we've toughened laws against drunk driving. Perhaps they need to be even tougher and certainly the Legislature will be considering that possibility when it meets next year.

In fact, that's why I'm working with law enforcement officials and others from around our state to assess our current laws and discuss where we can improve them. I intend to introduce legislation, as a result, during the next session.

We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that tough laws alone will not stop this behavior, nor prevent future tragic events like this. Only changes in public attitudes, coupled with tough laws, will do that.

As long as it remains socially acceptable to drink and drive in North Dakota, tragedies such as the one our community and state recently experienced will continue to be more likely.

Ask yourself a few simple questions. Why is it that drinking and driving are all-too-often acceptable? Why is getting stopped for DUI considered by too many, a mild offense and dismissed with a wink and a nod or relief at not being the one who was "caught," but traffic deaths caused by a drunk driver are an outrage? Those dots don't connect.

No law -- no matter how tough -- would have prevented the tragedy that families and friends of this young West Fargo family -- and our entire community and state -- now mourn. What may have prevented it, however, could have been a bartender refusing service, a friend stopping the driver from getting behind the wheel in his condition, a fellow patron of an establishment taking his keys, or someone calling the police or highway patrol.

Blame is easy to assess, but before we point the finger of blame, we must each look at ourselves, as North Dakotans, and consider our own attitudes and our response.

While nothing we can do will bring this young family back, perhaps we can do something to help prevent such tragedies in the future. Change our laws? Probably. Change our attitudes and make a difference, individually? Absolutely, if we truly expect things to change.