Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Balko: Abolish DWI laws to focus on impaired driving

Reacting to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo's call for a new DWI-lite charge in Texas' statutes, Reason magazine's Radley Balko makes the case for eliminating DWI laws based on blood alcohol content and focusing on impaired driving of all types. The crux of his argument:
The right solution, however, is not to push the artificial line back farther. Instead we should get rid of it entirely by repealing drunk driving laws.

Consider the 2000 federal law that pressured states to lower their BAC standards to 0.08 from 0.10. At the time, the average BAC in alcohol-related fatal accidents was 0.17, and two-thirds of such accidents involved drivers with BACs of 0.14 or higher. In fact, drivers with BACs between 0.01 and 0.03 were involved in more fatal accidents than drivers with BACs between 0.08 and 0.10. (The federal government classifies a fatal accident as "alcohol-related" if it involved a driver, a biker, or a pedestrian with a BAC of 0.01 or more, whether or not drinking actually contributed to the accident.) In 1995 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studied traffic data in 30 safety categories from the first five states to adopt the new DWI standard. In 21 of the 30 categories, those states were either no different from or less safe than the rest of the country.

Once the 0.08 standard took effect nationwide in 2000, a curious thing happened: Alcohol-related traffic fatalities increased, following a 20-year decline. Critics of the 0.08 standard predicted this would happen. The problem is that most people with a BAC between 0.08 and 0.10 don't drive erratically enough to be noticed by police officers in patrol cars. So police began setting up roadblocks to catch them. But every cop manning a roadblock aimed at catching motorists violating the new law is a cop not on the highways looking for more seriously impaired motorists. By 2004 alcohol-related fatalities went down again, but only because the decrease in states that don't use roadblocks compensated for a slight but continuing increase in the states that use them.
His argument makes tons of sense in light of recent research on distracted driving, in which Balko notes that "Several studies have found that talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, causes more driver impairment than a 0.08 BAC." The seemingly obligatory response by pols have been calls for more statutes targeting specific distracting behaviors, but it would make a lot more sense to punish reckless driving per se. Balko says, "Singling out alcohol impairment for extra punishment isn't about making the roads safer. It's about a lingering hostility toward demon rum." Indeed. Brilliant column, Radley.

10 comments:

R. Shackleford said...

Love it. It'll never happen, sadly.

Anonymous said...

I thought roadblocks were illegal in Texas?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

They are: According to this analysis, that's why our DWI rates are still declining. But the matter won't be helped by dissipating enforcement resources on less impaired drivers, as Acevedo wants to do.

Anonymous said...

This is a very thought provoking and sane idea.

I support it, even if I personally might face a lot of DWA violations. (Driving While ADHD).

M1EK said...

Devil's advocate (since I largely agree with Balko's sentiment here); is he ignoring the possible downsides of making enforcement go back to being mostly subjective rather than objective (even if the objective enforcement is ineffective)? IE, profiling; etc.?

PayingAttentionInDallas said...

I completely agree, and the only reason no one has brought it up sooner is because it's so politically incorrect that no one will touch it. In Dallas, our police are underfunded and they're devoting a lot of time to catching DUI's who might POSSIBLY drive bad sometime and ignoring the many and varied horribly dangerous drivers out there, many of whom are their very own moms, who are driving blind while using the cellphone. I don't believe cellphones should be necessarily banned either. I believe, as does the author that we have "wreckless driving" laws in place and laws about using blinkers, etc., and we need to dissolve the DUI unit and stop people who are driving bad NOW, thus making far better use of our tax dollars. I asked once why they didn't and you know what the answer is? Because police/prosecutors greatly prefer pursuing substance related crimes because they then have concrete evidence in court and it's not a question of he said/she said. That's not a good reason to ignore idiots driving badly. And like that article said, they're always blaming whoever has any alcohol for the accident when the truth is it's estimated 95% of overall accidents are from other causes, and it stands to reason a large percentage of the ones blamed on drivers who've had a drink or two are simply bad drivers to begin with. We need to stop clogging jails with these people who so far have no hurt anyone, stop people who are driving badly for whatever reason, and stop targeting drinkers, which reflects a longstanding moral agenda more than anything. If it's unconstitutional to stop people randomly and ask them for their citizen papers, then it can't be constitutional to set traps and stop people randomly to test for alchohol or other substances.

Anonymous said...

I believe Balko has some good points. Reckless driving laws need to be focused at all reckless drivers regardless of whether it is a cellphone, watching videos while driving or drinking. However, this requires both police and prosecutor cooperation. From my experience many county attorneys simply do not want to mess with cellphones. Remember they also use the cellphone while drivng, as most all of us do.

With that said I do not believe the 0.08 limit should be changed or done away with. Everyone handles alcohol differently depending on tolerence, body size and trained compensation for the impairment.

The 0.08 gives police a place to draw the line keeping enforcement objective instead of subjective.
I have seen drivers who couldn't exit their vehicles without tripping on their own feet who had a BAC of 0.08 to 0.10 and I have also seen drivers who could walk a tight rope but nystagmus present in their eyes gave away their intoxication wih BACs in the range of 0.15 to 0.20.

Both are equally dangerous to all of us who drive on Texas roads.

P.S. - Roadblocks are not permitted in Texas, the vast majority of DWIs the polce catch nowdays are called in by ordinary citizens using cellphones. Ironic huh?

Dennis W. Craggs said...

While agreeing with both Balko and PayingAttentionInDallas, I am not sure how the Drivers are in Dallas, but in Houston, often times signalling an intention to change lanes will almost assuredly thwart any such lane change. More often than not, the driver behind you in the lane into which you are trying to move into will speed up and prevent you from changing into that lane. It's almost like you have to "trick" them, or "sneak" into the lane before they can prevent it. However, cops use this failure to signal lane change as "actual" or "throw-down" probable cause for pulling over a driver, especially between 10 PM and 3 AM (not to mention "license plate light" violations) just to "check them out". DWI is BIG $$$ BUSINESS. I believe, but could be misinformed, that federal funds for DWI enforcement depend on the number of ARRESTS made, not CONVICTIONS.
It seems that there is a completely different Constitution applying to those charged with DWI, than other alleged criminal activities. Our lawmakers need to step back and look at the big picture with some COMMON SENSE (we'll have none of that in OUR state, or local, government. It seems that the attempt to criminalize or regulate more and more things is creating a society, especially our younger generation, that have come to believe that going to jail is a rite of passage, not an embarrassment to your family!

Dennis W. Craggs said...

While agreeing with both Balko and PayingAttentionInDallas, I am not sure how the Drivers are in Dallas, but in Houston, often times signalling an intention to change lanes will almost assuredly thwart any such lane change. More often than not, the driver behind you in the lane into which you are trying to move into will speed up and prevent you from changing into that lane. It's almost like you have to "trick" them, or "sneak" into the lane before they can prevent it. However, cops use this failure to signal lane change as "actual" or "throw-down" probable cause for pulling over a driver, especially between 10 PM and 3 AM (not to mention "license plate light" violations) just to "check them out". DWI is BIG $$$ BUSINESS. I believe, but could be misinformed, that federal funds for DWI enforcement depend on the number of ARRESTS made, not CONVICTIONS.
It seems that there is a completely different Constitution applying to those charged with DWI, than other alleged criminal activities. Our lawmakers need to step back and look at the big picture with some COMMON SENSE (we'll have none of that in OUR state, or local, government. It seems that the attempt to criminalize or regulate more and more things is creating a society, especially our younger generation, that have come to believe that going to jail is a rite of passage, not an embarrassment to your family!

Anonymous said...

I think one definition of Impaired Driving should mean be driving while not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body?

Oh, wait we have that one, it's called DWI.

I want to meet these officers who are hunting people who are 0.08 on the street (borderline). They must be really good at getting them to jail and through the intoxilyzer fast enough so they are still 0.08 at the time of the test.

I hate to spoil the notion that every drunk on the road is swerving across 15 lanes of traffic, but most make more subtle violations in front of officers. That's the beauty of driving while intoxicated, you can still drive fairly well. It's the implied deficiency by the use of the word "fairly well" that accounts for the 1 out of 20 red-lights/stop-signs ran.

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I love this one: "...police/prosecutors greatly prefer pursuing substance related crimes because they then have concrete evidence in court and it's not a question of he said/she said."

Come say that in a police station or the DA's office if you want to get laughed at.

DWI cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute in Dallas, even with an incriminating breath sample. Save your conspiracy theories for another county.

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Access to blood warrants 24/7 is the next step and it's coming. Sorry for the inconvenience, but take a damn cab.