Tuesday, December 7, 2010

abolish drunk driving laws?

A provocative piece by Radley Balko in Reason...

Among other things, Balko's essay underlines the importance of considering unintended consequences, particularly in government policy.

Last week Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo advocated creating a new criminal offense: "driving while ability impaired." The problem with the current Texas law prohibiting "driving while intoxicated" (DWI), Acevedo explained, is that it doesn't allow him to arrest a driver whose blood-alcohol content (BAC) is below 0.08 percent without additional evidence of impairment...

People do react to alcohol differently...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.

Consider the 2000 federal law that pressured states to lower their BAC standards to 0.08 from 0.10. At the time, the average BAC in alcohol-related fatal accidents was 0.17, and two-thirds of such accidents involved drivers with BACs of 0.14 or higher. In fact, drivers with BACs between 0.01 and 0.03 were involved in more fatal accidents than drivers with BACs between 0.08 and 0.10....In 1995 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studied traffic data in 30 safety categories from the first five states to adopt the new DWI standard. In 21 of the 30 categories, those states were either no different from or less safe than the rest of the country.

Once the 0.08 standard took effect nationwide in 2000, a curious thing happened: Alcohol-related traffic fatalities increased, following a 20-year decline. Critics of the 0.08 standard predicted this would happen. The problem is that most people with a BAC between 0.08 and 0.10 don't drive erratically enough to be noticed by police officers in patrol cars. So police began setting up roadblocks to catch them. But every cop manning a roadblock aimed at catching motorists violating the new law is a cop not on the highways looking for more seriously impaired motorists....

Several studies have found that talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, causes more driver impairment than a 0.08 BAC. A 2001 American Automobile Association study found several other in-car distractions that also caused more impairment, including eating, adjusting a radio or CD player, and having kids in the backseat (for more on such studies, see the 2005 paper I wrote on alcohol policy for the Cato Institute).

If our ultimate goals are to reduce driver impairment and maximize highway safety, we should be punishing reckless driving. It shouldn't matter if it's caused by alcohol, sleep deprivation, prescription medication, text messaging, or road rage...

Doing away with the specific charge of drunk driving sounds radical at first blush, but it would put the focus back on impairment, where it belongs. It might repair some of the civil-liberties damage done by the invasive powers the government says it needs to catch and convict drunk drivers....

37 Comments:

At December 7, 2010 at 2:49 PM , Blogger Chris said...

Here's an idea:
get caught once with a BAC of .01 or higher - get your license suspended for 6 months
get caught AGAIN with a BAC of .01 or higher - get your license taken away.
that should provide the proper motivation for not drinking and driving.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 4:46 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

I like your idea Chris!

The uncomfortable truth is that when people drive impaired for any reason, they are putting the lives of innocent people at direct risk and they should be held accountable. BAC is a reasonably objective measure by which to accomplish this, for alcohol related impairment anyway.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 7:41 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Did y'all read the article?

 
At December 7, 2010 at 7:44 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Two thoughts on Chris' idea (along the lines of the article):

How would you enforce that standard and what are the costs of doing so?

How would you regulate other things that cause at least as much trouble for driving?

Two other things: if we pounded people who got caught with violating these standards-- or especially if they caused damage-- we'd have a lot less trouble.

If we go to tougher standards, then we should also regulate lower-quality driving. Not that I've tried it, but I'm a lot more competent to drive with one beer in me than a lot of people who drive sober every day!

 
At December 7, 2010 at 7:45 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

I skimmed it.

Is the author suggesting we should repeal "impairment" laws?, change back to BAC 0.1?

...or extend the law to encompass more people that fit the definition of negligence in this area?(surely, not the Libertarians!)

What's your point?

 
At December 7, 2010 at 7:51 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

In a word, the unintended consequences, the arbitrary nature, and the questionable usefulness of such a law...

 
At December 7, 2010 at 7:57 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Evidently, you and I were on at the same time. I just read your points.

Here's the issue:
We're talking about the the difference between choosing to engage in a behavior well-proven to reasonably endanger the lives of other people (texting, drunk driving) vs. a behavior that may or may not cause harm dependent on the circumstances or may be deemed "accidental" (driving with kids, eating, adjusting radio volume)

Do you not see the difference?

Libertarian bias toward Personal Freedom toward personal freedom could color one's view of this debate, which is why Libertarianism is not mainstream.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 8:30 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

The article brings into question what you've written (in terms of logic and data) OR makes the point that we ought to extend such regulations to other behaviors. On the latter, laws against texting-- for better or worse-- follow the same logic.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 8:37 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

"The article brings into question what you've written (in terms of logic and data)"

There is no problem, in terms of logic or data, with what I have written. The problem lies with Libertarian philosophy and the worship of personal liberty.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 9:39 PM , Blogger Debbie H. said...

Excellent article.

To pianomom - you said,
"Here's the issue:
We're talking about the the difference between choosing to engage in a behavior well-proven to reasonably endanger the lives of other people (texting, drunk driving) vs. a behavior that may or may not cause harm dependent on the circumstances or may be deemed "accidental" (driving with kids, eating, adjusting radio volume)"

We are talking about reckless driving and the fact that BAC is no more of a predictor than kids in the back seat.

Some drive recklessly under these conditions and some don't. The offense should be reckless driving not drinking.

The author had a great example when he mentioned swerving on the road. If I swerve because I had a few drinks, I'm in very serious trouble. But if I did the exact same reckless driving because I was distracted by a screaming kid in the backseat, there may be consequences, but they would not be nearly as bad as if I broke drunk driving laws.

And yet in both instances the potential danger to others is exactly the same.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 10:01 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Hello Debbie

"We are talking about reckless driving and the fact that BAC is no more of a predictor than kids in the back seat"

Did the article cite stats to back this up? or are you assuming this?

If a person is driving and having trouble controlling unruly or unduly distracting children, the thing to do would be to pull over and gain control of the situation before once again operating the vehicle. If a person does not pull over, this could be considered willfull negligence, but more then likely falls into the category of "accidental circumstances" depending on the time one had to assess the situation and evaluate a safe course of action -- similar to, maybe, but still not as "wanton" as the drunk driver.

Now, the person who chooses to drive "drunk", falls into the category of definite and willful negligence because they make a decision to (significantly) increase the risk of harm to others.

Both could fall fall into the category of "reckless". The drunk driver does without question.

Most people can see the difference and have no problem with the status quo regarding these impairment laws, but not Libertarians.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 10:07 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

PM,

Maybe you have, but it doesn't seem like you've read the article.

Failing to deal appropriately with children-- and especially texting, playing with the radio, using a cell phone, etc.-- are all willful efforts to drive while distracted.

 
At December 7, 2010 at 10:16 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Eric, answer this:

On a 15 minute drive home from the bar, which is riskier --

1) Putting in a CD and adjusting the volume (which I should do before I get start driving)

OR

2) Getting behind the wheel after I've had a few too many Purple Hooters and my BAC is 0.13

 
At December 7, 2010 at 10:37 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Would you please answer so I can go to bed?

 
At December 7, 2010 at 11:00 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Good Night!

 
At December 8, 2010 at 9:13 AM , Blogger BDowdy said...

Hi all. If I may add a couple of points from my observation. I did read the article and, it sounds good in theory to be able to apply the same sort of punative repercussions to other "dangerous" activites (such as dealing with unruly children, texting, etc) as to arguably less risky BAC standards.

However, one of the problems I do see with it is that BAC can be used in a reactionary sense.

Employing BAC can remove much doubt or subjectivity from an officer who needs to make a decision if the actions he observed warrant arrest or citation.

For instance, an officer might issue a warning to a person who he "highly suspects, but is not certain" swerved while putting a CD in the player. There is no "metric" to judge impairment. Furthermore, that warning or citation will probably be enough for most folks (even CD swappers) to keep them from doing that for the near future (or lifetime) and certainly prevent a repeat on the remainder of a trip home.

However, the same officer might pull over a driver with a similar swerve, and upon finding the smell of alcohol, could administer a BAC test that allows the officer so apply "preventative" enforcement of the law. I dont think anyone who is truly drunk will be able to "sober up" just cause they have been pulled over. Clearly it is not safe or effective to just issue a warning or citation on the spot.

It can be used after an accident to implicate guilt on an offending party whose dangerous actions may otherwise have been unobserved by any (surviving) witnesses. In the other cases cited (dealing with kids, radio adjustment, texting, etc) there is no such defining metric available after an accident that would so strongly implicate guilt and result in justice for the victims.

Granted, this assumes that the guilty party does not just admit their guilty behavior. I do feel sort of confident in that assumption, especially if we (as we rightly should) begin to enforce laws against "impaired driving".

In other words, BAC provides a perhaps imperfect tool to address a certain (and rampant) type of impaired driving which other types of imparied driving lack. One that can be used to evaluate the ability of a person to drive even after an accident.

While the tool may be imperfect, I don't think it it is unuseful. Perhaps the roadblock enforcement approach needs to be discarded. That seems like a waste of time/effort/focus.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 10:15 AM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Good thoughts, BDowdy.

I don't disagree at all. In fact that is what I tried to say, basically, with my first comment:

"The uncomfortable truth is that when people drive impaired for any reason, they are putting the lives of innocent people at direct risk and they should be held accountable. BAC is a reasonably objective measure by which to accomplish this, for alcohol related impairment anyway."

- to which Eric responded "Did y'all read the article?"

 
At December 8, 2010 at 11:57 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I'm not saying to get rid of BAC laws. (Thus, the question mark to title the post.) But I like the author's points about:
-theory vs. practice of government
-unintended consequences of a BAC of .08
-the distinction between what we'd like to do (the issue is impairment and bad driving, not impairment per se) AND what we end up doing (because of limited metrics, the arbitrariness of BAC = .08, social focus on alcohol and now texting to some extent)

This isn't much about Libertarianism, but rather the (often large) gap between the theory and practice of govt.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 12:59 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

This is about Libertarianism and the problems you run into when you carry the philosophy all the way out.

From the author -- "Doing away with the specific charge of drunk driving sounds radical at first blush, but it would put the focus back on impairment, where it belongs"

He is against "drunk driving" laws and would like to see impaired drivers allowed on the roads -- as long as they don't show signs of impairment (Ridiculous!)

And form Eric "social focus (is) on alcohol and now texting to some extent"

What is "social focus" exactly? Does that mean the laws unfairly oppress people for purely social reasons? This, again, makes no sense. People are concerned about this because it is a problem and seriously compromises the safety of their families on the highway.

This has nothing to do with "social focus" except in the Libertarian system of values.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:06 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

But again, I don't support that. Beyond that, I'm not sure he supports it either; he may mean it to be more hyperbolic than literal. Either way, he makes some interesting points about the theory vs. practice of govt.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:17 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

You don't support what?

What exactly do you, Debbie, Radley and others support?

What is social focus?

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:25 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I don't support the elimination of BAC laws. I would be open to tweaking them and focusing on other things.

Sorry. By social focus, I meant that, for whatever reason, society focuses on those behaviors-- and this is a catalyst for focusing on those behaviors over similar behaviors. Other examples would be the damage caused by illicit drugs vs. alcohol and tobacco; and exceeding the speed limit vs. people driving slowly in the fast lane (often more dangerous and also illegal).

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:26 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I don't intend to stir the pot with those last two examples! ;-)

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:33 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

So now it's alcohol vs illicit drugs/speeding

I thought we were talking about alcohol vs kids in the car/eating/playing with the radio as it relates to social focus.

Nice change-up, Eric.

Of course, illicit drug users/speeders fall into the same category and the same principles apply, which is why we have laws against these things.

I think we have debated speeding before on your blog.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:38 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Personally, I am not so much against people using certain illicit drugs as I would be against them using and then driving

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:44 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

They were only meant as other examples of "social focus"!

 
At December 8, 2010 at 1:50 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Are you saying that "social focus" improperly zeroes in on drunken driving and texting (vs. speeding, drug using, driving with kids, eating, etc).

 
At December 8, 2010 at 2:05 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

"for whatever reason, society focuses on those behaviors"
I am sensing Libertarian bias here.

For whatever reason?

Hmmm... what could be the reason for society's oppressive "social focus" on these poor people

Maybe it's because more of us know people who have been killed by drunk drivers or texters than by people eating cheeseburgers or yelling at their kids.

Maybe it's because drunk driving and texting more seriously impair ability than Xanax/Lortab or even using a cell-phone.

Maybe it's because it seems so intentionally reckless

Who knows?

 
At December 8, 2010 at 2:12 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I'm saying that there is a focus beyond what the data would imply, driven by social norms. (So, for example, tobacco and alcohol cause much more damage than pot, but the latter gets far more focus.)

In the case of BAC, it seems like the move from BAC = .10 to .08, for example, might easily be surpassed by other factors that are detrimental to driving (but less popular to attack).

 
At December 8, 2010 at 2:25 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

"I'm saying that there is a focus beyond what the data would imply, driven by social norms"

This is a matter of opinion and probably depends largely on what study you were looking at.

People are concerned for good reason. You may not be in favor of the complete contrarian view but Radley Balko would be, I think, and Debbie also (impairment is the problem, not drunk driving or BAC level).

It is a result of the Libertarian worldview. I know you disagree and I guess we'll have to leave it there.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 5:34 PM , Blogger Debbie H. said...

Piano Mom, a few responses to all your comments, hope you can follow it okay.

1. In response to me saying this is about reckless driving and the fact that BAC is no more of a predictor than kids in back seat, you said,
"Did the article cite stats to back this up? or are you assuming this?"

My response:
No, the article did not cite stats. And that's part of what I mean. The only stats we can collect are for the BAC. We can't collect stats for other reasons if, say someone was swerving. So the stats on BAC skews any data on driving safety and reckless driving.

2. You wrote: "He is against "drunk driving" laws and would like to see impaired drivers allowed on the roads -- as long as they don't show signs of impairment (Ridiculous!)"

My response: This is not what he's saying. It's not that he would like to see impaired drivers on the roads, no one wants that. It's that no matter what, there ARE impaired drivers on the roads.

3. I do not speak for Eric. Or Radley. I speak for myself and I'm not really sure where I stand exactly on BAC. It's certainly too low in my opinion right now (and the article does go into some stats on this)

4. You say this falls into the same category as speeding and you may be right. Both speeding and BAC do not automatically mean someone is driving recklessly. In both cases, it's possible to still drive and harm no one. Most people speed every day and harm no one. I bet you've even done it a time or two.

5. You seem to consistently want to attack libertarianism in your posts. It adds nothing to the value of your points and only introduces an element of bigotry. And if you think there is such a thing as libertarian bias that would color one's view in this debate then to be consistent you would also have to say that someone in this discussion who personally knows someone who was harmed by an impaired driver would also have a bias that would color their view in this debate.

6. There is another problem with BAC laws, it assumes an accident happens purely as a result of the BAC. But we really can't know that. The accident may have happened anyway, lots and lots and lots of car accidents happen without any BAC level, every single day, so how do we really know?

 
At December 8, 2010 at 5:55 PM , Blogger Debbie H. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 6:33 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

"and I'm not really sure where I stand exactly on BAC. It's certainly too low in my opinion right now"

I find that interesting because you seem quite passionate on this topic.

I am not trying to attack Libertarianism, I am simply pointing out that, like any other philosophy, it can become idolatrous and nonsensical. The hard core Libertarian position on this issue is an example of that.

There are many things I like about Libertarian philosophy and I think there is value in certain aspects.

 
At December 8, 2010 at 10:29 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

FYI - I dug up our discussion on speed limits!

You will see Debbie, from the comments, that I have indeed been caught a time or two.
But I am proud to say that I have no wrecks or tickets in almost 10 years!!!

http://schansblog.blogspot.com/2009/10/driving-under-influenceof-electronic.html

 
At December 18, 2010 at 12:49 PM , Blogger Debbie H. said...

An excellent article written 10 years ago:

http://www.lewrockwell.com/rockwell/drunkdriving.html

 
At May 31, 2011 at 4:45 PM , Blogger Bad said...

Here's an app that lets you vent your road rage and rate bad driver online.http://www.driver-ratings.com/

 
At November 8, 2012 at 8:51 AM , Blogger Joseph said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 

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