Sunday, November 25, 2007

Less DUI law is more.

Drinking and driving is not necessarily a crime in the U.S. In California, if you are at least 21, you may not drive with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent or greater nor may you drive under the influence of alcohol (and/or other intoxicants). It is well known that Sweden has one of the toughest, if not the toughest, drinking and driving laws in the world. In Sweden, to drive with .02 percent or greater of alcohol in your blood is a crime. Even there, it is lawful to have at least some alcohol in your blood. However, .01 or even .019 percent (which is roughly the level a 180 lb. man would reach if he had the alcohol content of one beer immediately shot into his bloodstream with a syringe) is highly unlikely, according to the current body of scientific research on this subject to, by itself, cause impairment of one's ability to safely drive a motor vehicle. But could as little as one beer be an associated factor with unsafe driving? After all, doesn't drinking one beer cause, or at least contribute to, sleepiness (a highly dangerous state to be in while driving)? The answer is yes.

So, why is it that we (and even the Swedish!) are so tolerant of drinking and driving? Is it that alcohol is "a long-standing part of our [and Swedish] culture, and most adults who drink are able to enjoy it responsibly as part of a healthy lifestyle"? Perhaps. However, before one mindlessly signs on to this oft heard rationale, consider its source. The above quote is actually taken directly from the Century Council which calls themselves, "a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking formed by America's leading distillers". The leading distillers, with plenty of money to spend getting their message out, are bent on preserving the acceptance of alcohol as part of a "healthy adult lifestyle". Even if we accept that alcohol is a net positive influence on society such that it should remain lawful to consume (unlike a great many other intoxicating substances which have been declared unlawful), do we still have tolerate drinking and driving? No, actually, we don't.

As I wrote in a previous post, the law which states that you may not drive at .08 percent or greater of alcohol in your blood does not amount to official permission to drive between .05 and .07 (or even at .01 for that matter). The numeric "limit", as it were, is almost meaningless in a case which involves bad driving (or an accident, if you can actually separate the two concepts). Consequently, those who set out to drink the maximum number of drinks that their body weight and the DMV chart suggests they may drink without reaching .08 percent are missing a very important legal reality. They are, without realizing it, making an ill-considered bet that they will not be involved in a traffic accident on their way home. But, in a sense, they are being encouraged to make this bet. This, for obvious reasons, puts us all at greater risk of an accident, and them at risk of being arrested for DUI. There is no safe number of drinks to drink before driving. Even one drink, as it contributes to sleepiness, is unsafe. The worst of it is, that by condoning through laws and charts the act of drinking one, two, and even three drinks, as a part of "healthy adult lifestyle", people who might otherwise reflect on whether drinking even one drink is a safe course of conduct to begin with, may just fall back on (or hide behind) the government's standard of what safe drinking behavior is and, in effect, put themselves at risk of alcoholism and everyone at a much greater risk of alcohol related traffic accidents. To many who drink, two or three drinks causes them to approach, if not achieve, a euphoric feeling of invincibility. So, how difficult is it to stop at two (or three)? Too difficult, apparently. This is likely because two or three is just about enough to make most people (excepting those with a very high tolerance for alcohol) stop caring about the threat of arrest, much less the threat of a traffic accident. It doesn't take a scientist to realize that two drinks leads to three (or more).

In writing this post, I do not advocate for prohibition of alcohol in general. I think what people ingest which causes neither them nor anyone else any real harm should not be made illegal. I do, however, challenge the prevailing myth that drinking and driving is consistent with a "healthy adult lifestyle". Drinking in moderation is fine. Driving in moderation is fine. Together, in any amount, they are dangerous. However, even MADD, which is primarily supported by the auto and insurance industries, doesn't strongly advocate for an absolute end to drinking and driving. Their official position is against "operating under the influence", not against drinking and driving itself. So, how did I end up to the right of MADD on this subject? Easily. I don't like the hypocrisy involved in the current system which I am exposed to on a daily basis. The government, and MADD, ask people to get angry at the DUI offender (and in some cases their lawyers) without considering their own contribution to this problem. At best, the government condones drinking and driving and, at worst, it encourages it. MADD, and other anti-DUI advocacy groups, constantly ply the lawmakers with arguments, and other encouragement, to toughen the laws without addressing the hypocrisy. They, in turn, enact these new laws with zeal to convince their constituents that they are "getting tough" on crime. Consequently, we end up with incrementally tougher but ever more confusing laws which, we shouldn't wonder why, are not doing enough to reduce traffic accidents. I believe that we should skip all of the intermediate steps and simply prohibit the dangerous course of conduct with a clear bright line rule. Thousands of hair-splitting hours at the roadside, in the station, in court and in the legislature could be saved. I think we should simply ban drinking and driving and put more money into rail and other transportation alternatives. But that just makes too much sense and just happens to be too unsettling to the automobile, distilling, and insurance industries.


Anonymous said...

If your blood alcohol content is measured through your blood, then how can it be determined through a breath test? Can you do a post on this topic?

sbcrimlawyer said...

Yes, I'll add that to my list. Thanks.