Magazine article The Nation

Getting MADD in Vain; Drunk Driving: What Not to Do

Magazine article The Nation

Getting MADD in Vain; Drunk Driving: What Not to Do

Article excerpt


Drunk Driving: What Not to Do

The United States has one of the lowest rates of fatal road accidents in the Western world, but you might not know it from the publicity generated --and intensified with the coming of the holiday season--by organizations like MADD, SADD and RID. In the past five years Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Driving Drunk and Remove Intoxicated Drivers have had considerable success in drawing public attention to what they see as the havoc wrought by drunk driving. Thanks to their efforts more police resources have been directed against drunk drivers, roadblocks have become a common sight, penalties have been increased and plea-bargaining curtailed in drunk driving cases.

For all its advocates' zeal and good intentions, the campaign will probably not lead to a substantial or permanent reduction in the number of serious traffic accidents. Although drunk driving poses risks to the driver and others, the popular impression of the number of traffic deaths it causes is exaggerated. It is frequently stated that alcohol is responsible for 50 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities, but that statistic has no solid foundation. The figure includes all traffic deaths in which anyone directly involved has consumed any alcohol. That means cases of drunken pedestrians who are killed by sober drivers, or accidents involving a drunk driver properly stopped for a red light and hit by a reckless but sober motorist.

In many cases it is impossible to determine the cause of an accident. Most alcohol-related traffic deaths occur when other important causal factors are present--fatigue, inexperience, poorly lit and badly designed roads. Despite improvements in police reporting, we still have only the murkiest idea of the role alcohol plays in traffic fatalities.

Perhaps the most accurate estimate, from the National Academy of Sciences, attributes roughly 25 percent of fatal accidents to intoxication. That is certainly a substantial number, but it means that a program that reduced drunk driving by 10 percent could diminish deaths in crashes by only 2.5 percent. What's more, there is little reason to believe that criminal law enforcement deters drunk driving over the long run. In 1985 a review of the available studies, published in the Journal of Studies in Alcohol, indicated that increasing the penalties for drunk driving was almost totally ineffective. No evidence since then has seriously challenged that assessment. Publicity campaigns and stepped up police activity, combined with harsher punishment, may reduce the amount of drunk driving for a short time. In the long run, however, certainty of punishment is the only true deterrent, and the actual chances of being caught while driving drunk are on the order of one in a thousand such trips.

A serious policy of deterrence would require huge expenditures. More personnel, more vehicles, more training for the police, would all be necessary, and that, in turn, would divert funds and police from other areas. Punishing drunk drivers more severely and taking away their opportunity to engage in plea-bargaining has already increased the need for judges and lawyers. Local jails are horribly overcrowded, and many have been further strained by the rising number of drunk drivers serving sentences. But efforts made so far are only token compared with what might be needed to have a significant impact.

The less visible costs of the campaign against drunk driving may be even higher. The courts have held that the public must be given notice of what is forbidden by criminal law. How does one know when one has drunk too much to drive legally? The concept of intoxication, generally understood in this context as an alcohol-induced condition that substantially impairs the capacity to drive, is vague and difficult to identify except in gross cases. Some states, for example, make it a minor offense to drive with a blood alcohol content of more than . …

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