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.

DUIs cost thousands of dollars, remove people’s mode of transportation, and can bar many from job opportunities for the rest of their lives. 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. 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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  • Michael Crawford

    Thank you so much for recognizing this problem and having the courage to write about it. My life has been completely destroyed by these laws and even though it has been almost 15 years, I am unable to work and at times have had trouble finding housing. The passing of time has actually made things more difficult instead of easier, unlike any other mistake a person might make. The fact that it is a mistake rather than a premeditated criminal act is also a very important point. It is important to recognize this because although all of us may not drink alcohol, all of us make mistakes. I have made the same point to others that you’ve made here about messing with a radio. The example that I have preferred to use however was a simple comparison, anger. An angry driver is just as dangerous and that has been proven in road rage incidents all across the country. Thankfully, we are not yet to the point where a court can actually convict you of simply being angry, you have to go through with committing a real crime first. This means that it is not just your “belief” that something of this nature is a victim free crime but absolutely true that it is not a crime at all.

    I am not without sympathy for others and I understand that as a society, we have to prevent these sort of problems from occurring. The question is whether we have to go so far as to strip citizens of their constitutional rights and protection as Americans.

    ” Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

    I don’t think this is difficult to read or comprehend, I think the founding fathers got it right, and I don’t think that any state, including Michigan, should be allowed to be in violation.

  • RJ

    DUI offenders should be held accountable, BUT NOT FOR LIFE. People change, even felons, and if you can let felons expunge their records to get a new start, give the same chance to people who make the mistake of drinking and driving, PLEASE. It’s bad enough insurance rates are raised, probation, counseling, license suspension, and then on top of that a record that stays on for the rest of your life. People with professional careers can be ruined. It’s amazing how police and lawmakers will get them swept under the rug, even the governor pardoned but normal every day people end up in a worse financial situation.

    http://www.mlive.com/lansing-news/index.ssf/2015/03/michigan_gov_rick_snyder_uses.html

    DUI laws in Michigan are HORRIBLE for 1st time offenders, wreck lives of people, as you said, our justice system now convicts people on their potential to commit a crime and not actually for committing one.

    i.e. You could have killed someone because you were drunk.
    i.e. you could have killed someone because you were speeding 10-20mph over the limit.

    – Why not give fines to all SENIORS who drive slow on the highways, 50mph in a 70mph limit, and nearly cause accidents.
    – What about people who walk around neighborhoods with concealed weapons, get them too, because they are carrying, they can potentially kill someone too.

    Lawmakers just want to make money anyway they can. Let’s punish the people any way we can. I have a big problem with lawmakers allowing automotive companies to make cars that can go 120-140mph, keeping the speed limits at 70mph, and not making it a law to keep an interlock ignition in EVERY CAR.

    Why do people text and drive, or even drink and drive, because at 70mph, people can keep it on cruise and not pay as much attention if they were driving 80 or 90mph.

    SOLUTION:

    1. The law makers should amend the law, and allow expungement of 1st time DUI offenders with no accidents after 3 years as long as they have no other violations. Not every DUI offender is a criminal. Once a person has a DUI, and see’s that will be on their record for the rest of their live, their life is ruined, that person will not care if they get another one because their life is ruined in the 1st place. This is why there are so many repeat offenders. Give 1st time offenders a chance to expunge their records, and you will see the number of repeat offenders drop.

    2. People who drink don’t think, If MADD OR lawmakers want to see DUI’s drop significantly, they should require bar’s and restaurants to have breathalyzers, and require patrons to get a taxi if they are too drunk to drive.

    3. They should keep a law that if someone is having a party at their home, it’s the homeowners responsibility to take the keys of anyone consuming alcohol, and their responsibility to care for that driver in their home, until they are sober to drive. And if there is a driver on the road that is coming from a bar/restaurant, or someone home, it’s the host that should be punished for letting that person drive drunk, because again, people who drink don’t think!!!!

    Just imagine, teenagers to adults are known to be proud to finish a pint or fifth of liquor, and once a person has had 2-3 drinks, THEIR JUDGEMENT IS IMPAIRED. So it’s the host of wherever that person is drinking that should be held accountable if they let that person drive drunk.