Contrarian: The Thin Booze Line

Do the worst drunk drivers go unpunished because they have so much in common with the people who would punish them?

It’s a kind of philosophical riddle, like the one about the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it.

Is a slimeball any less a slimeball if the system lets him slide?

Take the particularly viscous John “Digger” Dolan. This 44-year-old software entrepreneur racked up five drunk-driving convictions between 1988 and 2003, but he’s still driving around. Back in 2002, Dolan drove drunk through police barricades into a crowd at the Radnor Fourth of July celebration. He was sentenced to jail time but never served it, because the Delaware County prosecutor’s office admits they forgot all about him. Finally, last December, when the Inquirer started poking around after Dolan got caught driving drunk yet again, the judge in Media set a January court date. By then, Dolan had fled to Europe.

Drinking isn’t Dolan’s only bad habit. He is a talented artist whose medium is bullshit. A onetime head of the Main Line Young Republicans, Dolan claims he’s developed anti-terrorism software, so he tends to throw Tom Ridge’s name around whenever the cops pull him over. He’s also got quite a sense of humor. Last December, Dolan told Inquirer reporter Mark Fazlollah that he deserves a break since he quits drinking “regularly.” Then, while Dolan was in Sweden, he complained in a letter presented to the court that Fazlollah has ties to al Qaeda.

When a malignant kook like Digger Dolan eludes justice this easily, you have to wonder if it’s the system that needs a sanity check. Every year, drunk driving kills more people than murder. Legislatures keep piling on new laws to combat the problem. But when it comes to punishing the problem drinker who refuses to stay off the roads, the justice system keeps meting out mulligans and do-overs — at least, until someone gets killed.

Most people over 40 can remember when drinking and driving was something you could still joke about. Back in 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Driving became the first activist group to shame the public about the human costs of driving under the influence. Laws got tougher. Cops started running weekend and holiday sobriety dragnets. Casual drinkers adjusted their behavior, and by 1994, alcohol-related highway deaths had been cut by more than a third.

But since 1994, the DUI death toll has leveled out at around 17,000 per year. Driving drunk isn’t the problem anymore. The problem is drunks who drive. They’re almost always drunk, so they’re almost always driving drunk. And they’re usually not just tipsy. They’re plastered out of their minds. When Digger Dolan was stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike last October, he’d been weaving down the highway at 90 miles an hour. When he was caught in South Philly, he was so wasted that the cop couldn’t get him to accurately recite the alphabet.