Drunken driving is a serious social problem, and dealing effectively with it is not an easy task for lawmakers, law enforcement officials and groups and individuals trying to raise awareness of the issue.

Part of the problem is that for far too long, our culture has seen intoxication as somehow humorous rather than tragic — or, depending on the circumstances, criminal.

The stereotype of the “funny drunk” has made careers for comedians and remains a staple of comedy routines, TV shows and movies.

But imagine a sketch about a drunk with a gun firing wildly into a crowd of people. Not funny? You bet, but that is quite similar to what happens when a legally intoxicated person drives on a public highway. All the humor vanishes when a drunken driver puts innocent people at severe risk of injury or death.

And the situation hits home with vastly heightened impact when the drunken driver is trying to operate a school bus with children aboard.

Jan Mooney, 55, a school bus driver in Saco, was charged last December with operating her vehicle while under the influence. A fellow bus driver smelled alcohol on her breath before they left the bus garage and police were notified. After stopping her at the middle school as she prepared to drive off with dozens of children aboard, they found that her blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit for driving a car and four times that allowed by commercial permits, a requirement to drive a school bus.

Maine has seen countless cases of OUI drivers, many still on the road long after they lost their licenses, spreading carnage at the expense of the innocent. That’s why the state adopted “Tina’s Law” in 2006, establishing a 2-year minimum sentence for habitual OUI offenders.

Mooney doesn’t meet the habitual-offender standards of that law, and the court sentenced her to 120 days in jail, with all but 10 days suspended. If she completes a counseling program, two charges of child endangerment will be dropped.

Those provisions could seem extraordinarily lenient to many people. Mooney wanted to drive a school bus with children aboard while legally intoxicated and then attempted to drive her own car home after her impairment was discovered.

Still, for a first-time offender, such leniency may be appropriate. If she ever gets behind the wheel while intoxicated again, however, any reason to withhold a serious and meaningful penalty will no longer pertain.

Courts and prosecutors should not forget that a major part of halting the drunk driving scourge is dealing effectively with OUI offenders.


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