Law & the Courts

Sobering Success

DUI checkpoint in Golden, Colo., 2008 (Reuters photo: Rick Wilking)
What we should learn from drunk-driving reform

When a man drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians in Times Square, many minds turned immediately to terrorism, which, given the recent history of vehicular attacks — Berlin, Nice, Stockholm, Westminster, Ohio State University, all in the past two years — was not unreasonable.

But the driver may simply have been drunk. He has twice been convicted of drunk driving and does not appear to be a malefactor of the “Allahu akbar!” variety.

Chris Hayes of MSNBC broke ranks with his fellow progressives who were spending the morning kicking the corpse of Roger Ailes to climb upon the dead and injured in Manhattan to crow, sarcastically: “This horrible event in Times Square looks like DWI, which kills thousands of more people a year than terrorism, so we can ignore it.”

Do we ignore drunk driving?

Hayes should get out of New York more often.

In the pedestrian-friendly and taxi-serviced parts of our big cities, it often is the case that the police barely register those reeling out of bars at 2 a.m. after a few too many. In the rest of the country, things are a little different.

It is difficult to say exactly, but given that policing, preventing, and prosecuting DUI cases accounts for a very large share of our lavish state-and-local law-enforcement spending, it almost certainly is the case that we spend more on DUI than we do on domestic counterterrorism programs. We do not regularly put up roadblocks to randomly (“randomly”) check for terrorists, but we do that for drunk drivers.

The FBI investigated Omar Matteen for months before he killed 49 people in Orlando, Fla., but failed to put a charge on him; even as our progressive friends cry out for more firearms regulations, the U.S. Attorney’s office responsible for murder-mad Chicago categorically refuses to prosecute straw-buyer cases; but nobody declines to prosecute DUI cases.

In fact, police departments put goals of increasing their DUI arrests by a certain percent year-over-year in their budgets: As crimes go, DUI is a moneymaker. DUI may be the least-ignored crime in America.

That’s not to say that this police activity is always effective or well executed. The vast majority of citations handed out at DUI checkpoints are for ho-hum things such as busted tail-lights and unbuckled seat belts. The state of Illinois has passed around millions of dollars in DUI-enforcement grants, which are used about the way you’d expect them to be in a corrupt and backward state such as Illinois: In Lake Villa, they spent about $1,000 per DUI arrest, and in Fox Lake they spent about $3,000 per DUI arrest. Other jurisdictions have experienced the familiar problems associated with other kinds of aggressive policing efforts: extorting sex out of DUI suspects, going to extraordinary lengths to protect their own from DUI charges.

But here’s the thing: The fight against drunk driving is a success story. A big one.

Since the beginning of serious DUI-reform efforts in the early 1980s, we have seen the number of drunk-driving deaths and drunk-driving injuries substantially reduced — by half, across the board, and by more than that when it comes to young people. In the 1970s, alcohol was a factor in 60 percent of traffic deaths and nearly 70 percent of traffic deaths involving young people. Today, that share is closer to a third in both groups. And that’s a smaller share of a smaller total group of fatalities: In 1982, 5,244 people age 16 to 20 died in drunk-driving accidents; by 2008, that number had fallen to 1,987.

In fact, the campaign against drunk driving is one of the great examples of how policy-driven social changes of the sort imagined by progressives such as Chris Hayes can succeed — and it also demonstrates the shortcomings of that model.

Legal and social reform did not solve the problem of drunk driving, and solving the problem presents an unrealistically high bar. We still have drunk driving, we still have too much of it, and people still die from it. But the National Institutes for Health calculates that policy changes prevented something on the order of 150,000 deaths from 1982 to 2001 and continue to prevent about 1,000 traffic deaths a year. That’s something.

How did we manage that?

Libertarians may wish to avert their gaze, but prohibition played a big role in that. As NIH runs the numbers, the single policy change that had the most significant effect was raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. Some of you will remember that the states did this under duress, with Washington threatening to withhold highway funds from non-compliers under the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. The federal law did not call for a ban on alcohol consumption by those under 21, but only on sales. This had the effect of moving teenage drinking from bars and restaurants to house parties and other settings where young drinkers might be less likely to drive — and where arranging for alcohol to be served required some organization and forethought, qualities not generally associated with the general run of 19-year-olds.

There were other legal changes as jurisdictions around the country adopted stricter laws on drinking while driving (before “open container” laws, one could drink a beer or two while behind the wheel) and on drunk driving per se, including “zero tolerance” laws that mandated the loss of driving privileges or other, more severe penalties for underage drunk drivers. This probably has gone too far, with the current prevalent blood-alcohol content threshold (0.08 percent) rendering some smaller men and women legally drunk after consuming a glass of Bordeaux with dinner.

That is significant in that one of the great underappreciated factors in reducing drunk driving has been social stigma. Getting a DUI is, in many quarters, considered a pretty low-class thing to do: excessive, irresponsible, yahooish behavior. My own general sense of things is that that has changed a little in recent years as zero-tolerance thinking and the 0.08 percent BAC standard have made DUI the sort of thing that could happen to anybody.

(Including you, Rosemary Lehmberg of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.)

Libertarians may wish to avert their gaze, but prohibition played a big role in reducing drunk driving.

Most social problems cannot be eliminated. Most social problems can be mitigated, and the campaign against drunk driving is one of the best examples of that being done successfully. Overall, we’ve cut DUI deaths and injuries by about 50 percent. Well done, us. We did it with invasive and paternalistic laws that lend themselves to occasional abuse and wanton mission creep, punishments that have tended toward the draconian, a campaign of social stigmatization, and heavy expenditures. And there are other less obvious factors: Overall motor-vehicle deaths have declined (traffic accidents are no longer among the top ten causes of death in the United States), partly because fewer of us are driving drunk, but mainly because all of us are driving safer cars. And recent technological developments are probably making a difference, too: The evidence at this time is not dispositive, but some studies have found declining DUI arrests in cities after Uber begins serving them.

That’s what real, effective social change looks like: a role for public policy, sure, but also changes in personal behavior, social norms, and economic activity, coupled with trade-offs and progress that is meaningful if modest.

But, hey, let’s pass a law that “fixes” health care. Tomorrow would be great.

– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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