There's a LOT of drinking in Berlin, where locals and tourists alike definitely enjoy their beer, generally a half-liter at a time. But according to the officer I spoke to, there isn't a great problem with drinking and driving here. "The drunks, they just ride the U," which is the city's underground subway system, she told me with a grin, adding that drunk driving had diminished with the recent implementation of "much more serious punishment." "What is the punishment for drunk driving here?," I asked. "A very large fine," the officer replied, "but if you are arrested [for DWI] more than once the fine becomes very high."
So this morning I checked online for more detail and found this story about the recent fine increases, which informs us that:
Drunk driving cases have dropped significantly in Germany following a government decision to double fines for getting behind the wheel while intoxicated, a media report said on Monday.
The former “grand coalition” government implemented the law on February 1, 2009, changing the fine for first-time drunk drivers from €250 to €500, and from €750 to €1,500 for third-time offenders.
Though the increases were widely criticised at the time, they have been effective, according to a nationwide survey by the Financial Times Deutschland.
The greatest improvement has been logged by authorities in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the number of drivers caught drunk behind the wheel dropped by 14 percent to 8,951 in 2009, the paper said.
In both Brandenburg and Bavaria cases dropped by 13 percent, while Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Rhineland-Palatinate saw reductions of eight and six percent respectively.
Berlin saw just a three percent drop, but with just 2,808 drunk drivers caught in 2008, the number remains relatively low, the paper said.Notice that's not 2,808 DWI deaths in Berlin in 2008, but 2,808 ARRESTS for the offense en toto!
The lower rate of DWIs is not, however, because of harsher punishment. A 500 Euro fine is about $640 American, but their DWI rates were much lower than ours even when the fine was half that. By contrast, in Texas DWIs include steeper fines, surcharges and potential jail time. For third-time DWIs, in Germany the recently increased "harsher" fine comes to just under $2,000 American - in Texas a 3rd DWI makes one eligible for a straight up two-year prison sentence.
Why are there fewer DWIs here despite plenty of drinking? As far as I can tell, the Berliner cop nailed it: Excellent public transport, probably coupled with the fact that there are pubs and bars in every neighborhood instead of zoning them all in one or two sectors of town. I'd mentioned last month on Grits that England, too, has surprisingly low DWI death rates for a country nearly three times the size of Texas, and I can't help but think that public transport in the major cities is the big reason.
More arrests and harsher laws aren't always the best solution to social problems like alcoholism and public transportation. Clearly whatever the Germans are doing on the subject is working a lot better than Texas' approach.
And please don't tell me public transport can't be extended to already urbanized areas. When the Wall fell in 1989, the two sides of Berlin reunited and the west side's subway system, the "U," was extended into the already inhabited East German parts of the city. If they can do that, Texas cities could figure out how to accomplish the task. (In Austin, the City Council plans to build an 8-mile long, 30-40 foot wide tunnel from Lake Travis into town to connect a water treatment plant the city doesn't even need. I've said to Kathy numerous times it's infuriating to me they would build a tunnel like that and we aren't getting a subway out of it.)
Criminal enforcement inevitably must be part of the answer for confronting DWI, but it's obvious to me that folks who're addressing the problem more successfully than we are rely on that approach much less exclusively. This trip is confirming my sense thatTexas has long ago passed the point where, for DWI, public safety returns on harsher punishment have diminished and other approaches would get a lot more bang for the buck.