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Laws: The Starting Point, Not the End Goal

Implementation: the process of putting a decision or plan into effect; the realization of an application, policy, idea, or program; execution.

As a researcher who spent many years conducting process evaluations and providing technical assistance to programs across the country, I can definitively say that implementation is a very important word.

In the policy realm, many times it seems that the passage of a law is cause to raise the “mission accomplished” banner. Often a lengthy, arduous, and at times, frustrating process, the passage of an impaired driving bill is merely the starting point in actualizing change. As the ink from the governor’s pen dries, it is not time to walk away but rather time for action.

Laws provide the foundation for policy, strategies and programs. The implementation process builds upon this foundation and creates a framework that is refined and expanded over time. How laws are implemented or translated into practice determine whether they will effectively accomplish their intended purpose.

There are many reasons why the implementation process is so challenging:

  1. Short implementation timeframe. In many instances, state agencies have a very short window in which to implement a law. Some states have effective dates for laws 90 days post-signing. Naturally, these deadlines provide limited time for adequate planning and can prove to be difficult to meet.
  2. Limited resources. Due to unfunded mandates, additional staffing and resources are commonly not provided to state agencies to assist with the implementation of a new law. When this occurs, staff must split their time between their existing job responsibilities and working to execute the tasks needed to establish the new policy/program. Practitioners in this position often report that they feel as though they are required to do “more with less” or “everything with nothing.”
  3. Existing laws. It is common for impaired driving laws to be passed in a piecemeal fashion. As a consequence, laws can become overly complicated and confusing, or may ultimately contradict pre-existing DUI laws. As a result, when legislation is being considered, it is important to look at the overall package of existing legislation relating to drunk driving to ensure that the proposed statute is compatible. If this is not done, agency administrators are faced with the difficult task of reconciling these inconsistencies which may, or may not, be within their authority.
  4. Supporting policy. In combination with good legislation, jurisdictions also require supporting policy that enables agencies to effectively apply and enforce new laws. It is at this juncture that problems frequently occur. Agencies are familiar with their own duties but may lack understanding of the roles and responsibilities of other agencies. Many impaired driving programs involve multiple agencies and absent good policy, communication and coordination is hindered.

One of the ways to overcome many of these challenges and to develop effective and enforceable legislation is to bring all relevant stakeholders together as early in the process as possible, perhaps even when a bill is being drafted. By bringing stakeholders to the table and affording them the opportunity to provide input as to what is feasible and to discuss the practical and operational implications of proposed legislation, it can result in better crafted laws. This can subsequently facilitate the implementation process while simultaneously establishing buy-in and support for legislative initiatives.

Another important aspect of implementation is the realization that it is not a singular or static process. On the contrary, it is an ongoing and dynamic one. The ability of jurisdictions to measure progress is closely connected to their success in effectively filling gaps that exist and developing evidence-based actions to reduce impaired driving. As a result, it is imperative that new laws and associated programs be evaluated post-implementation to determine whether they meet their objectives and where improvements are needed. It is only through evaluation that we can determine whether we need to fix cracks in the foundation or renovate the framework.

The passage of strong impaired driving laws is an important and necessary step towards eliminating drunk driving deaths on our nation’s roadways. But without proper implementation of these laws, this goal will not be realized.

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