The law and the publicity that followed its passage are credited with having deterred most "social drinkers" from getting behind the wheel, but it has done little to keep "problem drinkers" off the road, say alcoholism counselors and others who work closely with those arrested for driving under the influence (DUI).
Under the 1983 law, which was supported by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a first-time offender can plead guilty to DUI and be accepted into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program.
The conviction can be removed from the driver's record upon successful completion of the program, which typically includes a probation period and requires mandatory attendance at alcohol-safety driving classes.
The law also sets minimum jail sentences for repeat offenders. Anyone convicted for DUI a second time within a seven-year period can be sent to jail for 30 days. A third conviction carries a 90-day jail term, and a fourth conviction means one year in jail.
Since 1983, the number of people arrested for DUI has increased in the county. That year there were 1,064 DUI arrests. In 1988, 1,224 people were arrested, according to statistics compiled by the Pennsylvania State Police in Harrisburg.
In the wake of tougher enforcement and the increased public awareness of drinking and driving, law enforcement officials say the number of alcohol- related crashes has fallen.
The Pennsylvania Center for Highway Safety in Harrisburg reported that alcohol-related crashes dropped from 829 in 1987 to 689 in 1988. The number of deaths from alcohol-related crashes dipped from 29 in 1987 to 26 in 1988.
But nowhere is the effect of the new law more evident than at the Chester County Courthouse in West Chester, where DUI cases dominate the weekly court docket. The District Attorney's Office estimates that 35 percent of all cases before county judges involve DUI offenders.
In 1988, 398 people were sentenced in the county for DUI, representing almost 30 percent of all those sentenced for crimes, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.
At the Chester County Council on Addictive Diseases in Exton, where every DUI offender is evaluated and required to attend alcohol-safe driving classes, counselors note that one in six clients is a repeat DUI offender.
Robert W. Esty, the agency's executive director, said public attention must focus on those suffering from alcoholism. "I think the law has taught people about the dangers of drinking and driving. What we can't do is legislate away the disease of alcoholism.
"We need to go beyond law and education because the issue now becomes one of treatment and counseling," Esty said.
Michael Fairbanks, director of the addiction-treatment programs at Southern Chester County Medical Center in Jennersville, said treatment was especially important because the repeat offender often becomes more difficult to treat with each additional conviction.
"If the (problem drinker) does not accept the fact that he is an alcoholic the first time, he won't accept the second, third or fourth time," said Fairbanks, who has counseled alcoholics since 1975.
Despite the change in laws and increased publicity, Fairbanks said, the major problem remains that drinking and driving is socially acceptable.
"Although it's not acceptable to be drunk and drive, it's still acceptable to drink and drive," Fairbanks said.
"There's no doubt that the law had its impact on the social drinker, and it may have gotten some of the problem drinkers into treatment, but, as a whole, the law was not designed to give them any kind of help in a lasting sense," said Ruth E. Kranz Carl, executive director of the Chester County
Drug and Alcohol Commission.
Law enforcement officials say no law can keep people from mixing drinking and driving.
"For chronic drinkers, alcohol is an addiction, and no law - no matter how tough - is going to deter them from drinking and driving," East Whiteland Police Chief Robert Redzig said.
"Let's face it, we may never get the attention of the problem drinker, but at least the system gets them off the road," West Goshen Police Chief Michael J. Carroll said. "The good thing about the law is that it has increased sanctions against the multiple offender. I think the law has been extremely effective because I think most people are reluctant to get behind the wheel of a car after they've had a few drinks."