Going Overboard on DWI?

On August 15, New York will begin requiring breathalyzer “interlock” devices on the cars of everybody convicted of driving with blood alcohol (BAC) above .08 percent. The new rule even applies to first-time offenders. What's more, it is a strict liability rule, meaning it lets the government punish individuals even if they cross the line without intention, knowledge, recklessness or even negligence.

The new rule, called "Leandra's Law," is named after after the victim of a tragic accident—a naming choice that's a sure sign the Legislature probably went overboard. Indeed, New York's new rule is unusually severe. Some other states have interlock requirements, but apparently none has gone so far as to impose the requirement on first-time offenders who were only slightly over the legal limit.

Under steady pressure from neo-Prohibitionist groups such as MADD, government has reduced the legal BAC from the longstanding standard (.12%) to the present .08%, and it's been handing out ever harsher treatment to the persons it ensnares. Yet, almost all the drivers in the drunk-driving accidents that are sensationalized in the press are far above this limit. The laws aim at the wrong people.

There is no question that drinkers lose their ability to drive safely after a certain point, but the evidence is far from clear that .08% is that point. It is far from clear that pushing the legal limit down to .08 has improved public safety. Despite all the hype, the objective fact is this: The chance that a trip at .08-.12% will lead to a fatal accident is miniscule.

Are we safer?
Several decades of cracking down on DUI and DWI have reduced the number of “drunk drivers,” but does it make us any safer? The answer seems to be no. Despite the "common wisdom" put out by government and its chorus of anti-alcohol interest groups, the evidence doesn't show that we're any safer at all.

True, since 1982 annual "alcohol-related" fatalities have been nearly cut in half, but the total number of traffic deaths has generally stayed about the same. That is to say, the reductions in "alcohol-related" fatalities have been offset by thousands of additional deaths caused by drivers who haven't been drinking at all.
According to MADD, "Since 1980 (the year Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded), alcohol-related traffic fatalities have decreased nearly 50 percent, from over 30,000 to under 15,500...." Other statistics show, however, that as "alcohol-related" fatalities dropped, deaths caused by sober drivers increased by roughly the same amount. Indeed, until the recent wave of unemployment cut down the amount of driving, total yearly traffic fatalities hadn't changed much at all (43, 945 in 1982 to 42,532 in 2006)
The reason that "alcohol-related" traffic fatalities are almost fully made up for by “sober” fatalities is not, of course, that sober drivers are more dangerous. It's just that, due to the crackdown on DWI and DUI, more people are driving sober. But they still get into just as many fatal accidents anyway.

In summary, the bedrock fact is this: The evidence does not show that getting tough on DUI and DWI has made us any safer.

Alcohol, Quality of Life and Liberty.
There's no question that alcoholic beverages are a mixed blessing. Their use has a number of downsides. At the same time, however, there is also no question that a majority of the American people see alcoholic beverages and the freedom to enjoy them as a net positive, and most people view their use as an effective way to enhance the quality and satisfaction of their lives.
No matter how much some may lament these facts, they are facts and, in a society that values human freedom, dignity and autonomy, they are facts that cannot be dismissed.
Those who advocate tighter alcohol restrictions constantly exaggerate the downsides of alcohol use, misrepresenting or distorting not only the evidence about its role in traffic fatalities but its overall health effects as well. They ignore or downplay strong evidence that, for example:
  • Alcohol use helps prevent heart attacks: “With few exceptions, epidemiologic data from at least 20 countries in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia demonstrate a 20- to 40-percent lower CHD [coronary heart disease] incidence among drinkers compared with nondrinkers.” (Note 1).

  • Alcohol use extends life overall: A large study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed "3-4% longer life spans for moderate drinkers compared to nondrinkers or light drinkers." (Note 2). That amounts to about 2 years added on to avarge life expectancy.

  • There are few life extension techniques that are as easy or as likely to be employed as moderate drinking. People deserve the liberty to enjoy this technique without fear of government harassment.
    * * *
    Laws that go overboard in "cracking down" on driving after drinking have impacts on liberty large and small. They deter people from doing things that enhance the quality of their lives and that provide real personal satisfaction (not to mention, greater life-expectancy). More directly, these laws break up thousands of families each year (by sending a parent to jail) and burden an even greater number of families with serious financial hardship.

    As new DWI and DUI laws have ever greater impacts on liberty, it becomes all the more important to be sure that these impacts are commensurate with the risk. It looks increasingly likely, however, that political emotionalism has generated laws whose severity goes well beyond the strength of the evidence that supposedly supports them. Viewing the evidence at hand, these law-created burdens on liberty may be a disproportionately high price to impose on conduct whose riskiness is low.

    Notes