Lee Royster’s sentencing is a culmination of a tragedy that illustrates the need for an immediate shift in attitudes toward drunk driving in society and especially on Duke’s campus. Our thoughts remain with all those who were affected by last September’s catastrophic incident, particularly the family of the late Matthew Grape. In one sense, we feel uncomfortable using a tragedy of this nature as a platform to discuss the broader issue of drunk driving, but the prevention of future tragedies is a crucially important higher motive. To this end, we continue to see serious problems with the way drunk driving is perceived by students on campus, Duke’s administration and society at large.
A small portion of Duke’s student population continues to treat drunk driving much too casually. This problem may becoming more pronounced at Duke than other campuses in part because of recent shifts of the dominant social life off-campus and the close proximity of popular spots off campus—students sometimes dismiss the gravity of driving drunk across short distances. The reality, of course, is that blasé attitude towards any kind of drunk driving are unacceptable and can result in death. It is incumbent upon anyone who has driven drunk or even tolerated drunk driving in the past to reevaluate their attitudes now.
But these attitudes are no doubt driven by the Duke administration’s treatment of drunk driving, which is absurdly lenient. Driving under the influence is currently listed by Student Affairs only as one of several negative consequences resulting from alcohol consumption that also include litter and property damage.
The treatment of drunk driving as merely a sub-category of drinking policy needs to change dramatically. In fact, we advocate a zero-tolerance policy toward drunk driving: any Duke student caught drunk driving should be expelled. This may strike some readers as an unfair punishment for people caught driving only slightly over the BAC limit. But our view is that only the harshest penalty will compel students to reevaluate their current attitudes toward drunk driving. Anything else merely perpetrates the risk that Duke students continue to treat some instances of drunk driving—over short distances or after ‘only a few’ drinks—as acceptable. This seemingly harmless attitude can be deadly. Simply put, students who do not disavow illegal drinking and driving in all forms should not be welcome in our community, and the administrative sanction should be serious enough to stop anyone considers drunk driving in their tracks.
We would like to see similar changes in our legal system. Driving drunk is not an accident—it is a deliberate decision that results in the death of others. Treating it as a misdemeanor, as many jurisdictions do, is not commensurate with the gravity of the potential consequences. We strongly encourage the relevant authorities to rethink the message they send to teenagers when they award minimal or no jail time for a crime that remains among the leading causes of death for teenagers in America.
For too long, our community’s attitude to drunk driving has facilitated the continued occurrence of unnecessary tragedies. We cannot correct it soon enough.