ATLANTA -- Gov. Zell Miller's crusade to keep drunks off Georgia roads has coincided with a massive dropoff in the number of intoxicated drivers being arrested, a new state report suggests.
State officials who have been pushing for tougher drunk driving laws since 1991 attribute the drop to increased public awareness and stiffer penalties.
"That is exactly what we hoped for as we spent all those years trying to put in place tougher DUI laws," said Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who sponsored many of Miller's drunk-driving bills while serving as his floor leader in the state House of Representatives.
"I think just having that issue in the public's eyesight has contributed to this kind of decline."
The Governor's Office of Highway Safety, using police records from across the state, reported the number of DUI arrests in Georgia fell 39.5 percent between 1991 and 1996, the last full year for which figures are available.
However, lawyers who handle driving-under-the-influence cases found the figures hard to believe.
"When I saw those figures, I was kinda surprised," said Savannah attorney Lance Smith, a leading DUI lawyer in his area. "I've seen nothing but an increase, a dramatic increase."
Smith's business may be on the rise because drivers fear the harsher penalties.
"It may be that more people are coming to lawyers," Smith said. "A driver's license is so necessary to make a living, they don't want to take any chances."
Stiffening DUI laws has been a passion for Miller, who spent a night in a Gilmer County drunk tank himself in the early 1950s after being arrested.
With the exception of this year, the governor has come before the General Assembly each session with an anti-DUI proposal.
Virtually every year lawmakers passed a new DUI bill, but they didn't go far enough for Miller and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
-- 1991 eliminated the "no contest" plea for teens and lowered the legal limit for all drivers.
-- 1992 increased fines for habitual offenders.
-- 1993 gave judges the right to require repeat offenders install ignition interlock devices in their vehicles.
-- 1994 set mandatory jail terms for repeat offenders and mandatory community service for everyone convicted of DUI.
Finally, in 1997, backers of hard-hitting drunk driving laws struck pay dirt. A new law forced first-time offenders to spend 24 hours in jail and allowed officials to seize the license plates of habitual violators. It also eliminated what had been the advantage of the "no contest" plea: that first-time offenders could avoid losing their license.
According to the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, DUI arrests fell from 83,242 in 1991, the year Miller took office, to 50,346 in 1996. DUI arrests declined each year from 1992 through 1996, according to the report.
The count of alcohol-related crashes also dropped during that period, although not as sharply. And injuries and fatalities in alcohol related accidents have increased since 1991.
In fact, the number of Georgia alcohol-related fatalities in 1996 - 603 - was the highest since 1990.
Officials with the Department of Public Safety would not comment on the statistics.
However, local police say their emphasis on DUIs has not waned. Reports have shown a general decline in crime in many Georgia cities the past few years.
There was some fear the push to strengthen DUI laws might reduce the conviction rate because defendants, facing tougher penalties, would be more likely to pay for top lawyers to get them off.
Convictions, like arrests, have declined since 1991. That trend reversed in 1996, when convictions and license suspensions increased over the previous year.
One of the initial problems may have been flaws in the state laws. Defense attorneys challenged the wording of "implied consent" cards that officers read to DUI suspects.
The cards advise drivers they are required to take a blood, breath, urine or other test to determine whether they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and if they refuse, their license can be suspended. The wording had to be revised after successful challenges.
Terry Jackson, a Savannah lawyer who sometimes handles DUI cases, is among those skeptical of the state's figures, and the new laws.
"I know a whole lot of people who have been hurt by these new laws," Jackson said.
"People with 20, 25 years of work experience lost their jobs because they had to go to jail," he said. "The adverse effects are going to be felt for years and years to come.
"It's shortsighted to see this as a solution, to throw someone in jail and, if they make one mistake, not allow them to drive."
But to Baker, the drop in DUI arrests is "wonderful news."
"Over all, what these numbers tell me is our cumulative effort to strengthen DUI laws got the attention of those who would violate the laws," he said. "When you raise the visibility of DUI in this state, it has an impact on violators and people who enforce the law. Officials are looking for it and they are prosecuting those cases."
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