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Measuring the human toll

Drunken driving is a crime that results in such anguish and pain that it is virtually impossible to ignore the pleas of survivors. And so it is hard to give a suitable answer to someone like Earl Smith, who staged a protest at the state Capitol Monday.

Almost two years ago, Smith was walking down a Magna sidewalk with three of his children when 21-year-old Tory Lee Jacques, who had been drinking, drove off the road and mowed them down. All four were injured badly, but little 6-year-old Darius "Buddha" Smith was killed.

It's hard to imagine a more random and senseless act of violence, just as it is difficult for a parent to imagine anything more horrible than watching an innocent child die and being helpless to prevent it.

To Earl Smith, the crime was the same as if Jacques had taken a gun and opened fire on him and his children. Smith staged the protest because Jacques pleaded guilty to second-degree felony vehicular homicide and was given a sentence of one to 15 years in prison. He also was given two zero-to-five-year sentences for two third-degree felony counts of driving under the influence and causing serious bodily injury.

That's too lenient, according to Smith. Indeed, it's hard to find an appropriate punishment for a crime that destroys something that never can be replaced. Even under this "light" sentence, Jacques could face 25 years in prison, but Smith's sentence is that he will never be able to play with his son again.

This newspaper has long considered drunken driving to be one of the great scourges of modern society. No one likes to think that a car coming down the road is driven by someone who is loaded and ready to turn his vehicle into an instrument of death, but it is a statistical certainty that some of them are.

Smith made a lot of accusations during the protest and press conference, against prosecutors and others in authority. His anguish was palpable. His expressions no doubt mirror those of too many others who have had to deal with a similar irretrievable loss.

We don't take sides in this protest, nor do we know why Jacques was charged as he was. Utah lawmakers have done much in the last few years — spurred in some cases by the reporting and editorials of this newspaper — to toughen laws and to tighten the way courts handle DUI cases. One year ago, the state was honored by the National Commission Against Drunk Driving for lowering its DUI-related deaths from 71 to 46 in one year.

But Smith's protest is an emotional reminder that even 46 such cases a year takes a staggering human toll. For too many survivors, there are no satisfactory answers.

Whether by mandating blood-alcohol testing devices on the vehicles of previous offenders, or reducing the state's driving limit to a blood-alcohol content of .04 percent, state lawmakers need to continue looking for ways to curb the carnage. And the culture of the community needs to grow increasingly intolerant of anyone who considers alcohol and driving an acceptable mix.