An enduring irony of Pennsylvania's alcohol control regime is its consistent failure to yield the public-safety benefits claimed by its defenders. Despite restrictions on the buying and selling of alcoholic beverages that are unmatched in 48 other states, the state's record of preventing the most dangerous by-product of drinking - drunken driving - is unremarkable at best. Nearly a third of the commonwealth's fatal accidents last year were related to alcohol, according to the state Department of Transportation, slightly exceeding the national rate.

Official leniency toward habitual offenders - those shown to constitute the greatest threat to themselves and everyone else on the road - deserves much of the blame. As The Inquirer's Mark Fazlollah, Dylan Purcell, and Craig R. McCoy documented this week, nearly half of Pennsylvania's drunken-driving convicts are repeat violators, a share that is about twice the average among other states. If Harrisburg could muster as much interest in this truly dangerous behavior as it has in cracking down on beer garden licensing and fine wine shipments, it could prevent more of the 400 deaths a year attributed to drunken driving in the Keystone State.

State senators held a hearing Monday on how to address weaknesses in Pennsylvania's drunken-driving laws. They should start by taking up State Rep. Seth Grove's legislation to close a loophole that sometimes prevents judges from taking multiple drunken-driving arrests into account for sentencing purposes. That would allow more habitual offenders to be subjected to stricter sanctions, including longer jail sentences, extended loss of driving privileges, and ignition-interlock devices, which prevent vehicles from being driven by anyone who is intoxicated. The goal should be swift and certain consequences, especially for those caught more than once or with a particularly high blood-alcohol concentration, factors linked to a high proportion of fatal crashes.

The deadliest drunken drivers are even more likely to escape punishment in Philadelphia than in the rest of the state, The Inquirer reported. This is partly a consequence of the number and severity of crimes facing the city's justice system. But it's also a result of historical and lingering disarray in the courts, which helps some get away with their crimes. Fortunately, prosecutors say they have been working on the problem. They, the judiciary, and the police must ensure that incorrigible drunken drivers are treated as the serious threat they are.

That danger was underscored this year by the case of a Chester County man who had been arrested for drunken driving seven times before he caused the death of a 24-year-old motorcyclist. This week, the Inquirer noted several other cases of unchecked repeat offenses, including that of a Montgomery County woman who sped into oncoming traffic, killing another driver and herself, just two weeks after pleading guilty in her second accident while driving impaired.

Such losses point the way toward an appropriate and potentially lifesaving role for a government that has wasted too much of its limited capacity on unnecessary and pointless regulation.