In the past, I have expressed a degree of discomfort with drunk driving laws. Primarily because the limit is (in my opinion) set too low, no distinctions are made between buzzed drivers and blasted drivers, and the enforcement of these laws represent some civil liberty problems. But I can’t quite get on board with this:

People do react to alcohol differently. For many people one drink may well be too many, while experienced drinkers can function relatively normally with a BAC at or above the legal threshold for presuming intoxication. A person’s impairment may also depend on variables such as the medications he is taking and the amount of sleep he got the night before. Acevedo et al.’s objections to the legal definition of intoxication highlight the absurdity of drawing an arbitrary, breathalyzer-based line between sobriety and criminal intoxication.

The right solution, however, is not to push the artificial line back farther. Instead we should get rid of it entirely by repealing drunk driving laws.

Despite all of the fears about the latest and greatest dangers of driving, the roads have never been safer. Accidents are down. Injuries are down. Fatalities are down. And not just on a per capita basis, but an absolute basis as well. I suspect that the transition of drunk driving from something everyone nods and winks at to a BIG DEAL is one of the reasons for this. It’s really hard to think of something that used to be so commonplace to become so universally scorned. Yes, people do continue to drive drunk, but by virtue of its social unacceptability, it’s something that people do much more judiciously in the past and avoid when they can.

Driving drunk (as in drunk-drunk) is hazardous in the same way that driving 100mph is hazardous. Other than environmental concerns, driving 100mph is not inherently dangerous, but most people can’t do it safely and it’s difficult to interact with traffic going 70mph when you’re going 100mph. The correct and true libertarian response to this could be that we should let people drive as fast as they want and only penalize them when they get into an accident. On some roads this may actually make sense, but the majority of the time it’s an eventuality that something bad is going to occur. The laws are put in place to (ahem, among other things) prevent that from happening. It’s not often I go around and defend speed limits given that this site is a hub for scorn towards speed traps, but the basis for having speed limits is sound.

Ditto for drunk driving. Yes, you outlaw drunk driving because of the impairment it causes. But that’s the same rationale for speed limits. If something is inherently unsafe for most drivers under a sufficient number of circumstances, it is worth our while to ban it. Not to set up checkpoints for it. Not to declare war on it. But to keep it illegal and take reasonable measures to enforce it.

As with so many other things, though, the reasonable basis for a law pushes it towards being something much more problematic. On this Balko makes a number of good points. We lowered the legal intoxication level from .1 to .08 in our War Against Drunk Driving when the main issue is with people that have a BAC of twice that level. Billboards say “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving!” when no, actually, the two are quite different. But the law doesn’t see it that way. And when you keep lowering the limit, you can actually make things worse. When you make it so that people equate the two, you’re not just telling people that are buzzed that they’re as bad as someone that is drunk (even if they aren’t, which is why we have two different words to describe the two different conditions), you’re also telling buzzed people “Go ahead. Have another beer. You’re already ‘drunk.'”

This also becomes problematic because it increases the rationale for encroachment on other personal behavior. You know those studies that show that people on a cell phone are the equivalent to being drunk drivers? Well, they’re equivalent to being at the legal intoxication limit, which is not the same. And so The Worst Cabinet Secretary In Recent Memory (that would be Ray LaHood) puts out the idea that maybe we should prevent cell phones from even working in cars. Yeah, it might be inconvenient for passengers in the car calling to get directions and the like, but who cares? WE’RE TALKING ABOUT DRUNK DRIVERS!!!(or the equivalent thereof)!!!! And truth be told, there are all sorts of behaviors that are likely to be more distracting than having a minimal (but legally impermissible) amount of alcohol in your system. Do you listen to sports on the radio? DRUNK DRIVER! Bring the limit down to .05, as some propose, and you’re probably in the “eating a sandwich while on the road” territory and banning drive-thrus.

I’ve never seen the science to back it up, but I’ve heard that smoking a cigarette behind the wheel is the “equivalent of drunk driving.” I don’t think this is true, but lower the limit much more and it might be. And before you start thinking “Screw the smokers!” I can tell you first-hand that smoking behind the wheel is far less distracting than eating a sandwich.

It would be great if we had only well-rested, completely sober drivers behind the wheel doing absolutely nothing but driving. Or rather, it would be great if everyone else on the road was well-rested, completely sober, and doing nothing but driving. But for me? That would be hell. I’ve got the sober thing down, of course, but music and audiobooks keep me sane. Eating on the road makes trips last shorter. Getting a hotel room any and every time I get tired would get mighty expensive (and would bring medical residency programs across the country to a screeching halt, though that might be in the “plus” column).

Category: Road, Statehouse

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5 Responses to The WADD

  1. Peter says:

    I’d be mighty unhappy if eating in the car got banned. Probably half of my daily caloric consumption occurs when driving.

  2. David Alexander says:

    Other than environmental concerns, driving 100mph is not inherently dangerous, but most people can’t do it safely and it’s difficult to interact with traffic going 70mph when you’re going 100mph.

    As somebody that drove on the Autobahn, I’d argue that it’s actually much easier than one would suspect*. If we enforce “keep right except to pass rules” and tailgating, it actually works as slower traffic will simply move out of the way of faster traffic.

    *Arguably, this works best on outside of urban areas…

    Eating on the road makes trips last shorter.

    Maybe it’s me, but I really can’t stand that. It’s much too distracting to eat and drive, especially at highway speeds, and to me, it’s rather irresponsible to do so. If you’re eating fastfood and driving inter-city distances, 10 minutes at a table isn’t going to kill you. FWIW, I suspect our approach to driving will differ since you’re from a part of the country where the highways are relatively straight with wide lanes, while I’m from an area where the highways are curvy and narrow with no shoulders in some sections so there’s simply less margin for error here.

    As for the main topic, I don’t see what’s wrong with a .08 limit, and I’ve seen people (which includes myself) who are lightly buzzed make moronic decisions so I’m hesitant to see them behind the wheel of a car.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    I once saw a t-shirt that said DAMM: Drunks Against Mad Mothers.

    This sums up how I feel about MADD.

    Also, Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving ranks up there with Buying Drugs Supports Terrorism as statements that prove that the government is full of sht.

    Actually, I don’t think drunk driving per se should be illegal.

  4. DaveinHackensack says:

    DUI laws don’t make a lot of sense. You’re either driving safely or not. If you’re driving recklessly, who cares whether it’s because your drunk, buzzed, arguing with someone on a cell phone, or just an asshole? If we scrapped the DUI jihad and just enforced safe driving laws more vigorously (e.g., laws against tailgating, not signaling when turning or switching lanes, driving more than 10mph faster or slower than the stated speed limit, etc.) we’d probably be safer.

  5. trumwill says:

    The problem with drunk driving is that you can be perfectly save while conditions are optimal but on the turn of a dime you’re not safe anymore. It’s not unlike when I used to flout the Corrective Lenses restriction on my driver’s license. Most of the time I was fine… until suddenly I wasn’t anymore because I ran up a median curb on a left-hand turn. It wasn’t that I was blind without my glasses. Rather, it was that I missed things with them. Not often,as far as I know, but often enough.

    Even if – while drunk – you’re good at maintaining your lane and driving at a reasonable speed, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t a hazard to yourself and other drivers. The first indication that you’re not fit to drive can be when you miss a traffic signal or fail to stop for a pedestrian you didn’t see or the turn you misjudge.

    None of this is to say that our priorities are quite right (particularly when it comes to buzzed drivers). But I just can’t get on board with the notion that we should do away with them entirely. Even among those who don’t entirely stay within their lane, there is a substantive difference between one who is not quite paying the attention that he should and one that is plastered. There’s much more to fear from the latter in terms of future bad acts.

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