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500,000 DWI drivers on probation, in jail

WASHINGTON -- Reflecting tougher punishment for those who mix drinking and driving, over half a million motorists were on probation or behind bars for DWI in 1997, almost twice the level of the mid-1980s, the government said Sunday.

During the same period, drunken driving arrests dropped -- from 1.8 million in 1986 to 1.5 million in 1997 -- even though the number of licensed drivers increased almost 15 percent, to 183 million, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics announced.The bureau attributed the decline in arrests in part to the aging of licensed drivers. Younger drivers are more prone to drink and drive. In 1997, 54 percent of licensed drivers were age 40 or older, up from 46 percent in 1986. The older the driver over age 21, the lower the rate of DWI arrests, the government reported.

Of those convicted of DWI in 1997, 454,500 were on probation, 41,100 were in local jails and 17,600 were in state prisons. In 1986, 270,000 people were behind bars or on probation for DWI.

One expert said the figures reflect success in getting "social drinkers" to become more responsible and failure in dealing with the hardest-core group of drunken drivers: those who have a serious problem with alcohol.

Without alcohol treatment programs, "these are just drunk drivers waiting to get back on the road," said Terry Schiavone, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, a private group. "Jail and probation have never cured the drunken driving problem."

Forty-six percent of DWI offenders on probation were in alcohol treatment programs in 1997, according to the bureau study.

Support for Schiavone's view that the half million drivers now under correctional supervision are "hard-core" includes:

About half of DWI offenders in local jails reported consuming the equivalent of about 12 beers or six glasses of wine in the hours leading up to their arrest. About half those on probation said they had been drinking for at least three hours before their arrest.

A third of DWI offenders on probation said they drank every day.