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Phelps’ poor judgment presents opportunity for DUI dialogue

Olympic champion Michael Phelps walked into the Baltimore City District Court and pled guilty to drunk driving. For this, his second impaired driving offense in the span of a decade, Phelps received a one year suspended sentence and 18 months of probation supervision.

Phelps was arrested on September 30th after driving erratically at excessive speeds. Upon further investigation by officers and after failed sobriety tests, Phelps registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .14, nearly double the legal limit.

The outcome of the current Phelps case is unsurprising. Back in 2004, he pled guilty to DUI and received probation before judgment (PBJ), a common method for handling the disposition of first-time drunk driving cases in Maryland. For this first offense, Phelps successfully served 18 months of probation thus avoiding a conviction on his record.

Some may ask why Phelps received such a seemingly light sentence as a two-time (i.e., repeat) offender.  The simple explanation for the disposition is that while Phelps is identified as having had a previous offense, he has no conviction on his record. The absence of a conviction combined with the length of time between offenses and the fact that Phelps’ BAC was slightly under the .15 threshold (which is deemed to be a ‘high BAC’) at the time that he provided his breath sample, made this an expected sentence in Maryland. It remains to be seen whether the sanctions will have a deterrent effect the second time around.

Much discussion has been borne out of the Phelps case. A string of recent high-profile DUI arrests and the tragic crash of St. Louis Cardinals’ rookie Oscar Tavares has opened a national and media dialogue about the need for athletes and others in the spotlight to act as role models. In other words, model positive behaviour for the general public by abstaining from dangerous acts such as drunk driving. While this is a valid conversation to have, we can use these unfortunate instances as an opportunity to have a much more basic discourse about DUI.

The criminal offense of drunk driving happens daily in America. According to newly released data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2013, 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-impaired crashes. In his decision to drive impaired, Phelps put everyone on the road at risk of becoming part of a statistic. But he is not alone in his poor decision-making.

When it comes to the issue of drunk driving, we all have the opportunity to act as role models. This discussion should not be limited solely to those who have won 18 gold medals or can hit home runs. On the contrary, every single person has the ability to prevent drunk driving and to demonstrate to their friends and family what it means to be responsible.

Following his sentencing in 2004, Michael Phelps stated that he recognized “the seriousness of this mistake” and that he had learned and “will continue learning from this mistake for the rest of my life." Simply put, he did not learn.

We can all agree that the expectation we as a society should have is not to merely learn from such a grievous error in judgment, but rather to endeavor not to make that “mistake” in the first place. So in 2015, let us all become role models and continue a constructive dialogue about how to reduce the unacceptable number of drunk driving fatalities that occur every year. Join us in resolving to be responsible.

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