A few years ago an executive at the Coors Corporation, Peter Coors, was charged with a DUI after consuming a single beer approximately 30 minutes before driving from a wedding reception. Coors’ breathalyzer tests indicated he had a blood alcohol content of between 0.073 and 0.088. He was arrested at the scene and later had his license revoked. The embarassing episode led to a humiliating apology from Coors in which he stated he should have “arranged for a ride.” Upon hearing about Coors’ experience, I remember thinking that it was crazy that an otherwise successful, upstanding citizen can be arrested and have their life turned upside down because they had a beer or two before they got behind the wheel. Sadly for Mr. Coors and the thousands of other Americans who wind up in jail, lose their jobs, and have their reputations destroyed every year because of our draconian drunk driving laws, few people seem to share my outrage.
The simple truth is that the vast majority of people can have a few drinks and be perfectly fine to drive. After consuming a few beers over the course of a couple of hours most people who choose to drive might even be less dangerous than someone who is texting while driving ( illegal, but with a slap-on-the-wrist penalty) or someone who is woofing down a cheese-steak and drinking a giant slushie (totally legal, but still dangerous). For some reason, we’ve singled out drunk driving as the big bad evil of the driving world, even though there are plenty of other absolutely crazy things going on in people’s cars. Those of us who live in the DC area have plenty of amusing/scary commuting stories that involve seeing people doing the strangest things while driving. For my own part, I’ve seen people reading the newspaper (actually a very common sight on the Beltway during rush hour), shaving, plucking their eyebrows, typing on a laptop etc. All this leaves me wondering why in the hell the government decided that drinking a couple of beers and getting behind the wheel should lead to jail time, while reading the Style section of the Post as you roll along an eight-lane highway doing 60 mph doesn’t even merit a ticket.
When you think about it, drunk driving laws rest upon a bizarre concept — i.e. that you should be arrested because you might do something bad. Arrest is therefore a preventive act designed to stop a truly serious crime, such as vehicular homicide. The idea is that people who drink are more likely to get into an accident, so the act of drinking and driving should itself be criminalized. Surely a person who drinks five shots of vodka in and hour and gets behind the wheel is more likely to get into an accident than a person who had no alcohol at all. But is a person who had three or four beers over the course of a couple of hours as part of a meal significantly more likely to be in a fatal accident than someone who has a habit of fiddling with the radio while driving? I really don’t know, but I doubt it. Another problem with drunk driving laws is that they assume anyone and everyone will be dangerously impaired once they cross some magical threshold of blood alcohol content, even though every person’s biochemistry is unique, meaning that almost any rigid blood alcohol limit will produce false-positive results — i.e. flagging some people as drunk who aren’t. The standard 0.08 limit the federal government imposed upon the states back in 2000 is insanely low and totally arbitrary. It’s a limit that bears no resemblance to anything approaching what most people would describe as “intoxication.” It’s a limit set by politicians and lawyers who were more concerned with looking tough on drunk driving and responding to MADD’s… well… mad demands than they were creating a fair and thoughtful set of laws for managing the problem of drunk driving.
So what’s the solution? Some folks argue that drinking and driving shouldn’t be illegal at all, because until you actually cause an accident drinking and driving is a victimless crime, which means it shouldn’t be a crime at all. I’m sympathetic to that position, but I’m not entirely sold. Maybe I’m a lousy libertarian, but I can see the value in having preemptive drunk driving laws that actually target DRUNK drivers, rather than drivers who happened to have consumed a couple of libations in the hours before they got behind the wheel. I’m comfortable with targeting actual drunks because I can see the value in thoughtful laws that prevent extremely costly accidents. Simply put, the costs of genuine drunk driving are potentially extremely high, so as a pragmatist I can see the value in laws that go after the sort of person who would pound vodka tonics all night and then stumble to their car and drive home. To put things in perspective, I think most people would accept that brandishing a firearm in public should be illegal even if the weapon doesn’t discharge. Most people accept this because the cost of allowing people to recklessly handle firearms in public is potentially very high, even as the cost to our liberties that comes from criminalizing such behavior is very low. Genuine drunk driving presents a similar situation and should be handled in the same fashion.
Of course, none of what I’ve written here is to suggest that our existing laws are fair. Far from it, I think they are in need of a complete overhaul. A good start would be to see the the legal limit raised to something that makes more sense and to see drunk driving tests augmented to include some physical exercises that can actually help an investigating officer make a sensible judgment about a driver’s sobriety. For example, we should consider bringing back the old line walking test. Whereas a breathalyzer can tell an officer how much alcohol is in your blood, an inability to walk in a straight line should tell the officer whether that blood alcohol level equals intoxication. It would also be nice to see an end to sobriety checkpoints, which are transparent police fishing expeditions that have no place in a liberal society.
To sum up, a few common-sense changes would go along way to increasing the fairness of our country’s drunk driving laws, without increasing the risk to public safety. Unfortunately, taking a stand against an organization like MADD is probably not high on the to-do list of many elected officials. It’s too easy to just let them have their way. After all, American politicians aren’t generally in the business of leading. They’re in the business of getting reelected.