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December 31, 2008

A year-ending post with a pre-party reminder of the harms of drinking and driving

Inspired in part by this news report from CNN, headlined "Barkley 'disappointed' after DUI arrest," I will conclude my postings for 2008 with a year-end reminder about the harms of the crime of drinking and driving.  As regular readers know, I am often amazed and annoyed that even repeat drunk driving offenses rarely lead to severe punishments — especially given the extreme sentences often imposed on other "risk-regulation" crimes like felon-in-possession gun laws or failure-to-register sex offender laws.  The reason I am annoyed is principally because drinking and driving results in more avoidable deaths and other harms than most other crimes combined. 

Let's start with deaths.  As detailed in this official NTHSA report, about 13,000 Americans are killed each and every year in alcohol-impaired driving crashes.  In other words, on average, more than 35 people die in alcohol-impaired driving crashes every single day.  And, as this press release highlights, these deaths increase during the winter holidays.

Though statistics concerning physical injuries and non-fatal crashes are harder to find, MADD reports here that perhaps as many as half a million people are injured each year in crashes where police reported that alcohol was present and that roughly "three in every ten Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives."

For those who want to focus on economic costs, MADD also provides this sobering accounting: "Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost the public an estimated $114.3 billion in 2000, including $51.1 billion in monetary costs and an estimated $63.2 billion in quality of life losses. People other than the drinking driver paid $71.6 billion of the alcohol-related crash bill, which is 63 percent of the total cost of these crashes."  Or consider this recent report of a single repeat drunk driver who cost the Wisconsin taxpayers $365,000.

The good news is that drunk driving deaths have declined over the last few decades and more and more persons view drinking and driving to be a serious crime.  Also, though I frequently call for harsher sentences from repeat drunk drivers, I fully recognize that tougher punishments is not the sole or even best solution.  Indeed, I hope that technocorrections provide a new means to deal with this serious crime, and I was pleased to see this press report indicating that Illinois is going to be requiring "breath-alcohol ignition-interlock device installed" in the cars of DWI first offenders.  (Notably, as reported here, Washington state is trying out ignition locks for those with suspended licenses.  I believe Alaska has a new law with ignition locks, too.)

In other words, let's all be safe out there tonight as we ring in the new year!

Some related posts:

December 31, 2008 at 03:11 PM | Permalink


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"though I frequently call for harsher sentences from repeat drunk drivers, I fully recognize that tougher punishments is not the sole or even best solution."

That is, indeed, a strange disconnect, and a common one. Why not focus on the "best solution" instead of one you admit doesn't really solve the problem?

Beyond a certain point, tougher penalties simply aren't a deterrent to addiction related crime. In Texas, as I've reminded you before, it's simply false that "even repeat drunk driving offenses rarely lead to severe punishments." Our courts frequently hand out life sentences to repeat DWI offenders, but Texas' DWI death toll is HIGHER than California even though we've only got 60% of their population.

If tuff sentences worked for DWI, Texas roadways would be a lot safer than they actually are. The enforcement part (monitoring of roadways by police) is what prevents unsafe driving by drunks, not ginning up the punishment range.

IMO this debate should be more about public transportation systems (or the lack thereof) than the criminal justice system.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jan 1, 2009 10:48:45 AM

Say what you will, but it's a crime without specific intent. Supposedly, our criminal justice system places importance on the mental culpability of the offender. I understand that strict liability is very popular in this era, but ratcheting up the punishment on mala prohibitum offenses--especially where there is no criminal intent--engenders contempt for the law in the long run.

Posted by: | Jan 1, 2009 12:13:26 PM

Guess he won't become Governor of Alabama after all!!

Posted by: anon | Jan 1, 2009 2:04:17 PM

Keep in mind, DWI is not only a rime without any culpable mental state whatsoever (as a previous poster noted), but it's also the world's most subjective crime. Even if we presume intoxication based on BAC and the suspect submits to a breath/blood test, that presumed intoxication is just a shorthand way of saying they were unsafe to drive.

But when they do not submit to a breath/blood test, it is entirely the word of a police officer making double overtime pay to show up in court to testify, with guilt based on nothing more than the following line: "based on my training an experience as a police officer, the defendant was intoxicated because he had slurred speech, glassy eyes, and odor of alcohol."

Putting aside the fact that cops have a motive to make DWI arrests to get to testify in court for the overtime pay, odor of alcohol, slurred speech, and "glassy" eyes (I don't even know what that means, eyes are wet with tears and thus shiny - does that make them glassy? If someone has a fake glass eye, do they always look drunk?) are extremely subjective. Not only in the eyes of the observer, but they vary from person to person. Your speech may be slurred for many reasons, it may be the natural way you talk. I had one DWI case a few years ago where my client was a big-time cajun from Louisiana, and his accent made his speech sound arguably "slurred" whenever he spoke.

And then you have the standardized field sobriety tests, which the cops practice thousands of times, so as to make it look easy in the video, whereas most normal, perfectly sober people trying to do a walk-and-turn or one leg stand for the first time (even without the pressure of facing imminent arrest) have a hard time doing it. Try it sometime. As for the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test... it's entirely the word of the testifying (and getting overtime pay) officer that the suspect's eyeballs jerked - that will not show up on any DWI video.

All that said, assuming there was no accident, and no personal injury or property damage, I'm glad most DWI sentences are low. I think nobody should have to spend more than a week, max, locked up for DWI in such a case.

Although I think it should be legally impossible for a prosecutor to prove intoxication beyond a reasonable doubt based solely on the word of the arresting officer, without any additional evidence.

Posted by: BruceM | Jan 1, 2009 7:12:13 PM

Grits, your comment is pretty silly. First of all, that a remedy doesn't solve all problems doesn't mean that it does not solve some issues. Tough DUI sentences for repeat DUI offenders do have a deterrent effect and they do incapacitate. Life may be a little harsh if no fatality or permanent serious injuries result, but I think most people can agree that a DUI offender with multiple DUI convictions for elevated BAC should do some time even if no one is ever harmed.

I do agree that we should be careful about sending people away for long stretches for DUI, but when injuries or deaths result, there has to be a sanction. Has to be.

By all means should technical solutions be put in place. Ignition locks are a great idea.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 2, 2009 10:54:46 AM

It is scientifically foolish to base DUI stats, as MADD does, on whether or not an accident was "alcohol related." If a drunk, asleep in a parked car, is hit by a bus, it's an "alcohol related accident." If a car passenger involved in an accident is drunk, it is an "alcohol related accident." If a drunk pedestrian on a sidewalk is hit, it is an "alcohol related accident." Unfortunately, cops think the same way.

Furthermore, there are many folks far less impaired after consuming much more alcohol than others, making a breathalyzer or blood test totally inaccurate in determining inebriation. Not only that, but there are many sober Baptists who drive a lot worse than a drunk Unitarian, even when not using a cellphone.

Such nonsense about alcohol merely breeds disrespect for the law, just as it did in the 20s, and would for MADD as well, if they had any.

Posted by: jimbino | Jan 2, 2009 11:18:05 AM


You left out the most ridiculous feild sobriety test. That would be saying your ABC's backwards. Although I have never had a DUI I have had associates tell me that police officers had asked them to perform this task. I even saw an episode of "Cops" where they asked someone to do this!

Posted by: Heels | Jan 2, 2009 1:28:44 PM

Heels: the backwards alphabet recital is not a NHTSA standardized field sobriety test. A competent attornrey would get that portion of the videotape suppressed at trial. I'm not saying cops don't try to get suspects to do it, I'm just saying it's not one of the standardized field sobriety tests approved by NHTSA and taught using the NHTSA training manual. I could not recite the alphabet backwards right now, perfectly sober. I know it starts with z, y, x, that's about it.

federalist: ignition locks are asinine - you just get someone else who is sober to blow and start the car. Duh. Pay ya five bucks to start my car...

Posted by: BruceM | Jan 3, 2009 3:34:24 AM

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