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June 9, 2009

"Drunk-Driving Foes Split on Severity of Penalties"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Wall Street Journal article on a sentencing topic that, as regular readers know, I find fascinating.  Here are excerpts:

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has severed ties with an ally backed by the liquor industry, contending that the group is undermining MADD's campaign to eliminate drunken driving.  MADD asked the Century Council, a nonprofit organization funded by liquor makers such as Diageo PLC, to stop proclaiming it is a partner in MADD's mission and to remove MADD's logo from its Web site and other materials.

MADD, a nonprofit based in Irving, Texas, said the Century Council has hindered its efforts by, among other things, opposing state legislation requiring harsher penalties for people convicted of drunken driving for the first time.  MADD said the Century Council had pledged to stay neutral on the measures.  It also said the Century Council places too much emphasis on so-called hardcore drunken drivers and not enough on confronting the broader problem of all people who drink and drive....

The dispute highlights tension among several groups about how the U.S. should address drunken driving.  The U.S. made big strides in reducing deaths related to drunken driving from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s.  But since then, alcohol-related car-crash deaths have remained around 13,000 a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.

MADD in 2006 announced a multifaceted campaign aimed at eventually eliminating drunken driving.  The plan included support for research of technology that one day could enable cars to automatically detect if a driver's blood-alcohol level is over the legal limit and, if so, keep the vehicle from starting.

In the meantime, MADD is pushing states to require first-time offenders to install "ignition interlocks" in their vehicles.  These devices, when a driver breathes into them, can detect alcohol levels and prevent a vehicle from starting.  About a dozen states have adopted such mandates for all first offenders.

The Century Council, founded in 1991 to fight drunken driving and underage drinking, said it supports the mandatory use of interlock devices for first offenders with blood-alcohol content of at least 0.15% — nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08%.  The group said it is neutral on bills targeting lower-level offenders, preferring to leave those matters to a judge....

MADD said it agrees that hardcore drunken drivers — often defined as those with repeat offenses and very-high blood-alcohol levels — must be targeted. But it emphasized that many deaths are caused by drivers with no previous arrest record, and by those exhibiting blood-alcohol levels lower than 0.15%.  In 2007, drivers over the legal limit, but below 0.15%, accounted for about a third of all alcohol-related crash deaths in the U.S., according to the NHTSA.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

June 9, 2009 at 10:24 AM | Permalink


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This "Century Council" sounds pretty reasonable. People lose respect for the law when punishments are not gradated. There is a big difference between a first-time offense with a BAC of .09 (which, incidentally, wouldn't have even been a crime in most states when I first got my license in the 1990s) and a first-time offense with a BAC of .18. The former is dangerous and inadvisable, but the latter is closer to Russian roulette.

I tend to write off any idea with "MADD" attached to it at this point, precisely because they give the impression that they would lower the BAC level to .02 and imposed summary execution if they could. They are like the NRA or PETA of drunk driving.

Posted by: Observer | Jun 9, 2009 10:45:59 AM

VA's DUI statute contains graduated penalties - the statute for penalties is here - http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+18.2-270

There are mandatory minimums based on number of offenses (the third offense within 10 years is a felony), BAC level (over .15) and for transporting a child while intoxicated.

Posted by: Zack | Jun 9, 2009 12:54:31 PM

And this is where I too depart from MADD, an organization I otherwise respect. There are 300 million people in the USA and first time offender deaths are about 4,000 nationwide according to MADD. I am not willing to accept a "guilty until tested innocent" regime in a car for millions of drivers just for the sake of 4,000 deaths. Life is risky and we should do all we can to eliminate foreseeable risk, such as repeat offenders. But the goal of eliminating all risk is a fool's errand whose benefit is no way proportional to its cost.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 9, 2009 1:10:26 PM

Daniel, your post sounds bad, but is on target. But what if the marginal cost to install ignition locks becomes minimal? Do you think it's a freedom issue? And at some point, tort lawyers are going to start to sue manufacturers for not installing these things . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Jun 9, 2009 4:47:14 PM

Federalist. My general approach is to look through the eyes of proportionality. There are trade-offs to everything. But unlike typical cost-benefit analysis I don't think such trade-off can be reduced to purely economic or monetary terms.

In this specific policy case, the financial cost of ignition locks is irrelevant. It's the trade-off between the benefit of preventing 4,000 needless deaths vs the cost stemming from the impingement of the freedom of millions of innocent-until-proven-guilty drivers. Although the cost individually to each driver may be minor, in my estimation the collective cost is high. In my judgment, the cost is not worth the benefit.

I want to stress that this logic only applies to MADDs plan to have these devices installed in every car. I have indicated elsewhere that I support ignition locks for those convicted of DWI.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 9, 2009 5:58:48 PM

That's interesting--the financial cost being irrelevant. I don't necessarily share that view, since we're really only talking about not being able to drive a car while intoxicated. If the costs were negligible, then I don't see why this is much of a freedom issue.

In any event, if the costs ever become negligible (and I think that they will), then these ignition locks will become mandatory either by way of tort litigation or by way of federal regulation.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 9, 2009 6:18:05 PM

Doug if MADD is a legitimate non profit, I have a monkey for a nephew. MADD is all about paying its lobbyists/lawyer leaders and has little legitimacy anymore. Even its founder has left its fold. She acknowledges that the organization keeps playing with the facts and goals to continue enriching themselves with the money of victims and their families not to mention a number of governmental agengcies.

Charity Navigator, acknowledged as the Web's best source of truth in charity, gives MADD 1 star, its lowest ranking. It means MADD is poor at what it says it does. What it does do, is make the people associated with it rich. Its board makes obscene money and MADD is backed by groups who have always traditionally opposed alcohol from before the prohibition era. It is just a easier way to bring money into that fold without telling people how and whom is spending that money.

As a board member of a number of actual non-profits I ask that you refrain from calling them a not for profit. There are a lot of attorneys who would kill to make the money that the Chief Executive Officier makes (@$240,000) of MADD gets not to mention more than one assistant public defender who would love a raise to the $81k per year the President of MADD hauls in each year.

Posted by: That Lawyer Dude | Jun 9, 2009 7:38:04 PM

3 DUI's , 1 17 years old , 2 blocks from house , on motorcycle. 24 stitches in head. 4'000 + fines, suspensions, jail ect. 1, 9 years ago , catfishing on river , 1 mile from paved road. Officer was checking on campfires seen my truck reposition so we could sit on tailgate and noticed beer. 3rd.. two blocks from house.. Rarely go out , rarely drink, realized I left truck in a zone where it would be towed. Lifetime suspension. Jail, 5'000 and counting on treatment alone. Family likely to lose house. 4 points on my driving record , no accidents in 20 years. No record. ( It isn't a law at all, it is a death sentence )

Posted by: Robert Stewart | Aug 7, 2009 4:43:07 AM


Posted by: Robert Stewart | Aug 7, 2009 4:43:55 AM

really interesting points raised here, and in the comments too!

Posted by: Expert Legal Advice | Sep 24, 2009 9:00:23 AM

1988 at 20 years old sentenced, without a judge, trial or jury, to life imprisonment in my own body. Intoxicated driver blew .09 in Oregon one of two states that had the .08 law at the time. I was his third DUI offense, he had no license, no insurance and went out and got his fourth DUI a year after he almost killed me. Four years in a wheelchair, 35 surgeries, more than a half a million dollars. Disabled for life.

I'm currently a humanitarian aid worker in Basrah, Iraq. As for MADD, I did a lot of work with them over the years and I don't think Federalist's broad brush statement painting them as money-grubbing opportunists is true at the Chapter level where I did most of my work. I never worked with MADD National, but I worked with a lot of chapters and I assure you they were not raking in the dough. Please you are entitled to your freedom of speech, but we should all avoid the FOX news approach to addressing issues and your remarks are a gross mis-characterization to the majority of people who have at the chapter level donated thousands of hours and received no monetary compensation for their efforts and I assure you there are thousands of them.

In reality the most severe penalty is usually born by the victim and for what crime, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you really want to avoid the penalties associated with drinking and driving I suggest you just refrain from drinking and driving and then it becomes a non-issue.

Posted by: Tiana Tozer | Dec 31, 2009 9:43:32 AM

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