November 13, 2006
Getting tougher on drunk driving
This extended AP story about sentencing in drunk driving cases has me wondering again why we invest so much time, money and energy in wars on drugs and terror, but not on drunk drivers. The interesting article concludes by noting that there were 16,885 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the United States, which is many times the number of persons killed on 9/11 and likely greater (perhaps much greater) than the number of deaths that might be directly linked to illegal drugs.
Some related posts on drunk driving sentencing:
- Is capital punishment for drunk driving morally required?
- Why do we worry so much more about sex offenders than drunk drivers?
- Undue leniency for drunk drivers?
- More discussion of leniency for drunk drivers
November 13, 2006 at 06:58 AM | Permalink
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Texas DAs agree with you, Doc. But how much tougher could/should they be? In Texas DAs can and do seek 25-99 or life on a 5th DWI offense. Should they give such sentences on the 4th offense, the 3rd? At what point should we decide to warehouse drunks literally for decades to prevent traffic deaths? See the DA's discussion linked here:
And if you go that route, would longer incarceration for DWI help? Alcoholism and other addictions are essentially medical situations we're trying to handle as criminal justice problems. Tougher sentences don't stop drinking and driving any more than they've stopped illicit drug consumption. IMO we'll fail at reducing DWI deaths if prosecutors are encouraged to think of lengthy incarceration as the primary tool in the toolbox. Best,
Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 13, 2006 8:59:46 AM
Three strikes and you are out seems popular in other contexts, though this is a setting in which I think shaming and other non-prison sentences likely could be most effective.
I agree that warehousing drunks is not a great use of state resources, but there are a lot of other things we could/should try. How about scarlet letter cars --- second offense requires driving around in a special car that says repeat drunk driver in big letters on the doors.
Posted by: Doug B. | Nov 13, 2006 10:10:21 AM
Grits, your timing could not have been worse. First, we have the appalling Denver story, and now we see a family of six being killed by some guy driving at 4 time the legal limit.
Drunkenness (alcoholism, drug addiction) is a medical issue--drunk driving is not. It is a public safety issue. People who repeatedly get behind the wheel while dead drunk are menaces. And the law has to deal with that. Maybe life for repeated offenders is harsh, but so too is the fate of the Denver father who watched his wife and children cut down on a city street and now has to live with the "what might have beens" for the rest of his life. So too is the fate of the 15 year old survivor of the wreck in New Mexico, who now must grow up without her parents and siblings.
Posted by: sobrien | Nov 13, 2006 11:51:55 AM
I'm afraid with as many alcohol-related deaths as occur, there's never a good time to discuss this, Sobrien. (I should also mention that however compelling your examples, in the Texas cases described, life sentences were pursued in instances where no one had been killed.) But let's try. You write:
"Drunkenness (alcoholism, drug addiction) is a medical issue--drunk driving is not. It is a public safety issue."
This ignores the possibility: What if it's both? If so, then IMO treating it ONLY as a criminal justice issue instead of acknowledging the medical aspect HARMS public safety in the end. If somebody can be arrested and go through the system 4,5,6 times and keep drinking and driving, the system is broken. I can't speak for other states, but Texas spends litte money on treatment for DWI offenders the first few times they're arrested, then expects drunks to not be drunks when they get out of jail or prison.
Would stronger intensive community supervision, home visits, mandatory treatment, etc. for DWI for the first and second time offenders reduce the number of people who go on to get many more cases? I think so, but we can only speculate. But please don't claim "tuff" laws are any solution - that's what we've got now and the status quo results in 16,000+ deaths.
So what else you got? Doug's scarlet-letter cars go nicely with his shaming theme. The device that makes you blow to drive for DWI probationers has been successful. I've also wondered if you could add an iris recognition aspect to it - essentially a mask you'd breathe into with a personalized biometric iris scanner - to prevent probationers from having someone else blow for them. The technology is there, whether or not someone has put it together. Best,
Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 13, 2006 12:12:12 PM
I think we all have to realize that getting behind the wheel when drunk is a choice and is therefore the proper subject of criminal sanction. Past that, I agree that lightning bolt harshness (i.e., highly random harshness) is not an effective way to solve the drunk driving problem. I do not, however, have a problem with life sentences for repeated drunken drivers with accident records as long as my arm. Maybe the issue is that he have to work with the possible, not the ideal. Society is never going to incarcerate serial drunk drivers for life in numbers that will reduce the number of deaths. So maybe we have to deal with it in other ways. In any event, drunk or not, the guy who mowed down those kids in Denver needs to go away for a very long time.
Posted by: sobrien | Nov 13, 2006 12:33:30 PM
The posting interface ate my reply, so here's a summary of what I wrote and lost.
1. The government is intentionally misleading the people by including just about any accident where they suspect somebody had consumed some alcohol, even pedestrians who got run over by sober drivers. The "caused by drunk drivers" statistic is probably around around a quarter of the "alcohol-related" statistic.
2. Driving with a prohibited alcohol concentration is punished extremely harshly relative to the risk of harm. Attempting to start your car in your garage after having a few drinks is usually a more serious offense than driving recklessly on public roads while sober. The thousands of deaths are the product of hundreds of millions of criminal acts.
3. The system needs to understand the difference between the different types of offenders. Some learn their lesson after meeting the criminal justice system. Others need conditions of probation. Others will get drunk and beg, borrow, or steal a car as soon as they get out of prison, and can only be stopped by locking them up and throwing away the key.
4. The legal system appears to be incapable of recognizing the difference between types of offenders, and by federal law is not allowed to recognize the difference between "driving with a prohibited alcohol concentration" and "driving drunk." The .08% limit set by federal law is about half of what it takes to get a person "drunk" as the term is understood outside of criminal law.
Posted by: John Carr | Nov 13, 2006 12:43:07 PM
John's points are well-taken. There is clearly a difference between driving with a .08% BAC and a .20% BAC, and the law should be able to make distinctions there.
Posted by: sobrien | Nov 13, 2006 1:14:28 PM
I find myself largely in agreement with Mr. Carr, but to reply directly to sobrien, if getting behind the wheel is a choice made by someone with a genetic propensity for alcoholism, their judgement is impaired when they make the decision to drive. Indeed, impairment of decisionmakeing (and reflexes) are the stated reason we don't want drunks to drive.
Social problems like drinking, drug use and traffic deaths must be addressed with some detachment to be successful, not caught up in the emotionalism of this or that terrible case. In setting public policy on traffic, substance abuse and other macro-level issues, I think it's helpful to remember this anecdote from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu.
"Suppose a boat is crossing a river and another boat, an empty one, is about to collide with it. Even an irritable man would not lose his temper. But suppose there was someone in the second boat. Then the occupant of the first would shout to him to keep clear. And if he did not hear the first time, nor even when called to three times, bad language would inevitably follow. In the first case there was no anger, in the second there was—because in the first case the boat was empty, in the second it was occupied. And so it is with man."
In both instances, the boater had the same array of options to avoid colliding with the oncoming boat, but in the second case chose to expend energy getting angry at the other boater who did not respond to his pleas. Even though it was within the power of the first boater to avoid the collision, if the boats collided in the second instance he would surely blame his counterpart, not his own distraction from what's really important - protecting his boat.
So it is when society approaches addiction, alcoholism and even traffic accidents more broadly as a pure criminal justice matter. Getting angry and extracting punishment may be human nature, as this parable teaches us, but that doesn't mean anger always generates good public policy outcomes or that maximum vengeance will result in reduced DWI-related deaths. That is, if that's the goal.
This is another instance, as with drug courts for possession cases, where we should look to evidence-based practices instead of raw, incident-specific emotionalism to reduce DWI deaths. Best,
Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 13, 2006 1:18:45 PM
Once upon a time, it was only a crime to drive while actually impaired by alcohol. The relation between blood alcohol concentration and actual impairment is strong but not perfect. Blood alcohol raised a presumption of impairment, but it was rebuttable.
Then the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, decided that presumptions were unconstitutional. So the legislatures defined the crime in terms of blood alcohol alone.
Thank you, Justice Brennan.
Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Nov 13, 2006 3:06:55 PM
California studies found the most effective tool to be vehicle impoundment for 30 days or more. Still not perfect. Maybe GPS tracking might actually work in these cases. If the tracking is sent to cops on the beat and the if convicted is moving at car traveling speeds, after an alert, a patrol car could intercept it and pull it over if the DUI driver is driving. There would be false alarms because the DUI driver might be traveling with someone else, but the alerts and checks might be enough deterrent to cut the tragedies drastically. Far less expensive than prison.
Posted by: George | Nov 13, 2006 5:59:12 PM
We are overloading our prisons!
Unlike most of the rest of the workd (where the percentage of the population incarerated is dropping over time), in America we continue to imprison a greater and greater percentage of our people.
I don't pretend to be wise enough to draw the lines required to reverse this trend, but we must do something.
Around the Southeast, where I live, virtually every request for new taxes to build more prisons is rejected - even as the population continues to grow.
If we're going to continue to require prison time for drunk driving, then we need to re-examine our reluctance to fund new prisons.
I'm a journalist in Florida.
Posted by: Don | Nov 14, 2006 2:58:38 AM
George -- there are studies showing that not revoking a driver's license but instead installing an ignition interlock, or revoking registration without seizing the vehicle, are effective. Some studies found that interlocks are not effective, but the majority seems to think they are. There are potential methodological problems with such studies, and some differences in equipment that can impact safety. The problem is, once you revoke somebody's license you lose the ability to monitor his driving. If you accept that people will drive under suspension anyway, it makes sense to impose a lesser but enforceable restriction.
Kent Scheidegger -- Massachusetts used a prima facie rather than per se law until state politicians decided they wanted more federal highway money. The law was construed, as are all such criminal laws in Massachusetts, to create a permissible inference rather than a mandatory or rebuttable presumption. The conviction rate at trial was around 50%. I don't know how it changed with the new law. (First offenders usually plea bargain and receive the minimum punishment authorized by law.)
When you're talking about "drunk driving", remember that it's not something that only happens in the slums. If you haven't done it, your friends have. Enforcing the law means putting millions of people in jail and leaving millions more unemployed. That's why there's a large quiet resistance to change. Even the politicians know that sooner or later they'll run into an honest cop who doesn't fall for the old "do you know who I am" line.
Posted by: John Carr | Nov 14, 2006 8:48:40 AM
More than half of the 414 child passengers ages 14 and younger who died in alcohol-related crashes during 2005 were riding with the drinking drivers
In 2005,48 children age 14 years and younger who were killed as pedestrians or pedalcyclists were struck by impaired drivers
Posted by: angelina03 | Sep 8, 2008 4:20:46 AM
Tough new laws on impaired driving and auto theft take effect Dec. 1 in Manitoba.
Drunk drivers and car thieves convicted of repeat offences will face the possibility of a lifetime suspension of their driver's licence.
Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh says driving is not a right and the new penalties send a message that such crimes will not be tolerated.
A fourth conviction for drunk driving would bring about a lifetime suspension.
A third conviction for auto theft would result in a permanent driving ban.
The measures are in addition to any criminal penalties.
Posted by: rosy | Sep 9, 2008 10:52:01 PM
Manitobans who drink and drive will face new penalties, if a bill now before the legislature is approved. Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh announced the measures Thursday. "Number one, we will be implementing lifetime driver's licence suspensions.
Posted by: Kyle | Nov 14, 2008 4:49:13 AM
I agree that laws need to be tightened on this topic. There should certainly be strict laws, 3 strikes is all very well but the second or third strike could come too late.
Posted by: drink driving ban | May 25, 2010 7:59:00 AM
This is key point you have made.I think its the people who have to be learned about these facts and value of their life's.Govt should conduct counselling centers and bring the awareness of drunk n drive's consequences.Then we can reduce this problem to some extent.
Posted by: Erik | Jun 24, 2010 4:31:33 PM
Without a doubt - The technology of these-days have to take its place and prevent drinking while driving.
I don't speak about the breath devices that the police is using but automate scanners inside the car like id, fingertips and breath that will assure that the vehicle owner is driving and that he is safe and Sober.
Posted by: id scanner | Jun 27, 2010 7:56:45 AM
A lot measures need to be taken by the government and also people have to respond for these things.Need to be addressed immediately or else this may not stop.
Posted by: Roger | Jun 27, 2010 11:32:08 AM
These bad signals for people who drunk and drive.They have to be careful when next they drink and make sure they don't drive.
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Posted by: Jack | Aug 16, 2010 8:29:34 PM
I agree more should be done about drunk driving. Thanks for the insightful article.
Posted by: California Lemon Lawyer | Aug 18, 2010 8:19:09 PM
I fully agree with you on this. Drinking and driving needs to be stopped in it's tracks, no pun intended.
Posted by: Gambling Lawyer | Aug 22, 2010 3:49:09 AM
You are so right.. If we all try to be more alert to this issue, and if our goverment will commit herself to reducing this painfull number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities, things might look different..
Posted by: lcd | Aug 23, 2010 1:10:08 PM
When I recently visited the US I was staggered to find the amount of people who drink-drive on a regular basis. I think because the land is so vast, the chances of being caught are much lower. It seems to be accepted by many in society and not frowned upon in the same way it is in the UK.
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Three strikes and you are out seems popular in other contexts, though this is a setting in which I think shaming and other non-prison sentences likely could be most effective.
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Posted by: Tadacip | Feb 2, 2011 4:47:42 AM
So it is when society approaches addiction, alcoholism and even traffic accidents more broadly as a pure criminal justice matter. Getting angry and extracting punishment may be human nature, as this parable teaches us, but that doesn't mean anger always generates good public policy outcomes or that maximum vengeance will result in reduced DWI-related deaths. That is, if that's the goa
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Rather actually! California studies found the most effective tool to be vehicle impoundment for 30 days or more. Still not perfect. Maybe GPS tracking might actually work in these cases. If the tracking is sent to cops on the beat and the if convicted is moving at car traveling speeds, after an alert, a patrol car could intercept it and pull it over if the DUI driver is driving. There would be false alarms because the DUI driver might be traveling with someone else, but the alerts and checks might be enough deterrent to cut the tragedies drastically. Far less expensive than prison.
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What an excellent blog! Social problems like drinking, drug use and traffic deaths must be addressed with some detachment to be successful, not caught up in the emotionalism of this or that terrible case. In setting public policy on traffic, substance abuse and other macro-level issues, I think it's helpful to remember this anecdote from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu.
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The interesting information, the tonic on a note! I've also wondered if you could add an iris recognition aspect to it - essentially a mask you'd breathe into with a personalized biometric iris scanner - to prevent probationers from having someone else blow for them. The technology is there, whether or not someone has put it together.
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I searched for this theme! When I recently visited the US I was staggered to find the amount of people who drink-drive on a regular basis. I think because the land is so vast, the chances of being caught are much lower. It seems to be accepted by many in society and not frowned upon in the same way it is in the UK.
Posted by: Camarad | Aug 10, 2011 4:32:30 AM
What an excellent blog! And if you go that route, would longer incarceration for DWI help? Alcoholism and other addictions are essentially medical situations we're trying to handle as criminal justice problems. Tougher sentences don't stop drinking and driving any more than they've stopped illicit drug consumption. IMO we'll fail at reducing DWI deaths if prosecutors are encouraged to think of lengthy incarceration as the primary tool in the toolbox. Best,
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