A New Look at Drunk Driving Laws

Driving drunk is a pervasive problem in the United States. Americans drive more often under the influence of alcohol, and the US has significantly higher fatalities due to drunk driving, than most other parts of the world. To be sure, the goal of this article is not to say that drunk driving is not a problem or that it is an acceptable thing to do. I merely wish to point out the nuanced ethical problems with DUI laws and suggest what is perhaps a better and more effective solution.

According the US Department of Justice, over 1.1 million people were arrested on DUI charges in 2013. Contrast this with numbers of deaths and injuries due to drunk driving – 10,076 and 290,000 respectively, per Mothers Against Drunk Driving – and you will see that there is an enormous difference between those receiving DUIs and the casualties produced by drunk driving. Accidents involving property damage but no casualties notwithstanding, there are hundreds of thousands of people who have been arrested for being under the influence of alcohol, but who have not gotten into an accident, and who have not harmed anyone or anyone’s property. Now, someone could easily say that the difference in these numbers is proof of the effectiveness of DUI laws and enforcement, and that those hundreds of thousands of people who were arrested, but had no accident, were prevented from hurting people or property. Though that argument would probably resonate with many people, I didn’t realize that our justice system now convicts people on their potential to commit a crime and not actually for committing one.

Getting a DUI can result in hefty expenses, loss of transportation, and lifetime employment limitations, even preventing one to be a driver for a day. This seems to me like a very hefty toll for people who have not gotten into an accident, and who have harmed no one. Though I am not advocating for people to drive when they can barely walk or speak, I am advocating for a justice system that is based on solving the issues in which someone violated the rights of someone else (e.g. a true crime), and not based on the arbitrary whim of the lawmakers and law-enforcement officers. And arbitrary is exactly what DUI laws currently are. Alcohol is a substance which affects every single person differently, with some slurring their words with a BAC of 0.05, and some being able to expertly drive a vehicle with one of 0.09. Having a universal maximum BAC for everyone both gives people the false confidence that they can drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.07 when they really shouldn’t, and effectively ruins the life of someone who was maybe in a tough situation and decided that driving with a level of 0.082 was worth it. The arbitrary nature of these laws is further illustrated by the fact that different countries all have different legal limits under which is considered “safe” and “legal” to be driving. A digit far past the decimal point can spell the difference between mere fines and imprisonment. Are people so different in Germany than in the US? Can we have a BAC up to 0.08 and safely drive, while those in Germany are only safe under 0.05? If there were truly a concrete standard for most people most of the time with regards to a driving-safe BAC number, it is only logical to think that most countries would be just as uniform.

The arbitrary nature of these laws and punishments aside, there is still this simple issue of these hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been ruined, but who have committed no crime. Though this is a definition rarely used in our country, I am of the belief that if there is no victim, there can be no crime. A person who was drunk and smashed into a car killing three people committed a crime, a person who veers off the road and destroys someone’s mailbox committed a crime… but a person who was just driving home after a few drinks, got stopped at a police checkpoint, and was subsequently thrown in jail, committed no crime. The person in the latter situation did not produce any victims and, presumably, did not have the intent to produce any victims. If it could somehow be proven that there was intent to cause harm, meaning that you could prove a person got drunk and drove with the sole goal to cause harm or death, then it could possibly be said that the person in question committed a crime. But as it stands now, most people get DUIs because it is said that their blood-alcohol level increases their potential to cause harm. And this becomes, as we said, a matter of arbitrary scale.

And if we are talking about increasing our potential to cause harm, then driving while under the influence is not even at the top of the list. For example, the seemingly benign activity of operating the radio while driving—something we all do—was reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have been the cause of 66% or 28,380 of the 43,000 fatal car crashes in 2002. And that is just one example of the many activities that are arbitrarily deemed “okay” that distract us while driving and increase our potential to cause harm. Others could be having more than one person in the car, having a car which can drive very fast, driving a car with summer tires in the winter months, driving an old car, driving for more than a couple hours at a time, and the list goes on and on. Like driving under the influence, if one of these things can be proven to have directly caused an accident, then you should be at fault and have to defend yourself in a court of law. The problem with accepting actions which produce no victims as crimes is that it opens the door to further arbitrary government action.

The fact of the matter is that this is just another instance of the government usurping personal responsibility. Unless there has been an offense committed, meaning unless there is a victim and a violation of that victim’s rights proven in a court, it is not the business of the state to get involved. The primary defense should be one’s friends and family. The now commonly heard adage of “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” should be, and largely is currently, the primary obstacle to drinking and driving. If a cop is patrolling a road and sees a car swerving and driving erratically, then his first instincts (as our public servant) should be to pull it over and see what the problem is. If the person is visibly impaired, then the cop should proceed to make sure there have been no damages done to persons or property in the area that may be attributed to the driver, and should either drive the person home or take the person to the police station in order for him to sober up who later must use this service to clear his name. People should not drive drunk, and if they are found to be doing so, then the cop should do his job and protect both other drivers and the drunk driver by getting the latter off the road. Friends, family, respectful and helpful cops, and education at a young age about the dangers and stupidity of drunk driving are the ways we will fight this issue. That is how we are to create a culture in which people do not accept others driving drunk and in which they themselves don’t even think to drive if they feel they are too impaired to do so. As with everything in life, personal responsibility and responsibility for those you care about is critical and, in my view, is the solution to this problem.

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