Thursday, September 02, 2010

Why so few DWIs in Berlin? Public transport

I'm writing from Berlin, which I'm finding to be just a fabulous city, but while I'm waiting on the missus this morning I thought I'd share with Grits readers a conversation I had yesterday with a German cop about DWIs.

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.


Anonymous said...

MADD wont go for it and they are driving the conversation. They want vengance, not justice.

Roy said...

The US has been for a long time pushing bars out of neighborhoods, and it's illegal to be drunk in public, so anyone who wants to drink at a bar has to drive there, and, after, his brain befuddled by alcohol, is likely to decide to drive home.

In Ireland, pubs don't have parking lots. People walk to the pubs, drink (and eat, and sing and dance), and afterwards walk home legally. There's little DWI there.

doran said...

A great part of our problem here in America is the influence and political clout of our friends, neighbors and family who are moral authoritarians. They are not going to do the rational, obvious things which need to be done to prevent drug/alcohol deaths and injuries: They want the drinking and drugging to stop, because they think it wrong, against God's plan, etc etc ad nauseum. So we don't have rational approaches which would avoid the problems of DWI; instead we arrange things so that DWIs can easily happen, as Roy points out, and those who do it can be harshly punished. Think stocks in the village square.

As for the Austin tunnel you mention, it is not the only one. There is a subway sized tunnel running from West/Northwest Austin under the City and to the east of 183. It carries shit and other sewage from the West/Northwest residents of Austin to a treatment plant on the Eastside.

JohnT said...

I was in Germany on business in the 80s and enjoyed the hotel's pub.

I was impressed with the attitude of Germans I met about DWI. They regarded the punishment with respect. They would not drink and drive because the punishment was certain if caught.

Also, their qualifications for a Feuerschein (driver's license) were more stringent than ours.

If they had one too many beers, either a friend drove them home, or they used public transportation, or they walked since the beer hall usually wasn't far from home (usually an apartment).

Anonymous said...

As a Texas JP I've really enjoyed your comments on the Driver Responsibility Program. I doubt Germany has changed much since I spent three years there in the late 70s. Check out how they handle uninsured motorist, driving while license invalid, etc..
As another commenter mentioned, the certainty of the sanctions is what dictated my fellow military peers followed the laws in Germany.

Zeety said...

Another factor that may be at play is the rate of alcoholism in various ethnic groups. In some countries (France, Germany, Italy) where drinking has been culturally institutionalized for milennia the rate of alcholism is comparatively low, while in others it is high.

It's no accident that African Americans and Native American Indians, who were only recently exposed to spirits have high rates of alcohol abuse.

As the greatest melting pot in the world it's not as all surprising Amercans have alot of "problem drinkers."

Or, in laymens' terms; some people just can't handle their booze.

Great post, Scott. Now, quit working and get back to loafing.

jimbino said...

This post and the comments are bereft of logical thinking.

First of all, anyone who has lived in Europe or Latin America notices that there are far fewer cops poking their noses in people's business than here in the USA. In any case, the number of arrests for DWI is proof of nothing.

In Texas, you have to get in your car on Saturday night and go out to buy a sixpack so as to have a beer on Sunday morning. In Berlin, on Sunday morning, you can have a beer in a Biergarten while the women and the children they force to go with them occupy a few seats in the government-supported churches. Fair enough.

In parts of Texas, you have to drive over a hundred miles to get a drink. In Brazil, Munich and Berlin, there's a pub on almost every corner.

In Texas, where only Bud, Miller and Coors are for sale (think West Texas), you have to drink 12 beers to get a modicum of taste. In Munich, in contrast, one beer is a tasty meal in itself!

In Germany, you can skip that church and drink beer as an adult along with you parents in that Biergarten on Sunday morning at age 14. Amerikans, in contrast, are able to extend their childhood until age 21.

I wish we could send the Mad Mothers off to Germany. Until then we need to treat them as a domestic terrorist organization! In any case, I'd like to get ahold of one of those Arson Licenses that JohnT mentioned in his comment.

Anonymous said...

We need to put about 50 miles of subway under Dallas.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the accuracy of the info presented in the article. DWI in Germany and other parts of Europe bring swift, sure, and staggering punishments. It's been quite awhile, but as I seem to recall, you could lose your driving privileges for life in Germany. Maybe that's changed.

Anonymous said...

DWI's are a great source of revenue for law enforcement along with asset forfeiture and, of course, the comparatively lame speeding tickets so there is no amount of logic that will make this change which is unfortunate. One thing to consider in this scenario is the lack of gangs to claim a stretch of a route as theirs or create fear from their activities in Europe as they do here in America. Personally, I feel the latter is a result of the police being obsessed with catching drunks instead of chasing real criminals, the one's that kill! The list of our short comings grows larger as time goes on and the "M.A.D.D.s" and "D.A.R.E.s" are part of the problem, second only to religion, and not the solution. A good start would be to remove corporate sponsorship from the candidates that seek votes by courting organized groups. More down to the issue at hand, get rid of the religiously driven yet outrageously stupid wet/dry area concept and remove draconian zoning restrictions just because it's near a school or how about removing the damn school since all of these ridiculous laws and nonsensical rules are only driving us all to drink!


Jeff said...

How do the DWI rates in the major Texas cities stack up against cities like New York, D.C. and San Francisco that good (for the US) public transportation systems?

sunray's wench said...

"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."

Scott, England is not nearly 3 times the size of Texas. Geographically it's the other way round. We have 3 times as many people here though:

population of TX - around 25 million
population of UK - around 65 million

The UK did have a big problem with drunk driving in the 1970s and before. It has taken a long but successful shift in attitutdes and some very hard-hitting publicity campaigns that are probably too graphic for many Americans to allow on TV let alone in their schools to turn people's behaviour. It has worked though.

escalante blogger said...

Wow! too far with that 50 miles...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Sunray, I of course meant the size of the population.

Jeff, fwiw Houston leads the country in DWI fatality rates, and had more than 10,000 DWI arrests last year compared to 1/5 that in Berlin, which is roughly the same size. See here.

Doran, I'm not against water and utility tunnels per se, but the one from Lake Travis a) goes under environmentally sensitive land with endangered cave species, b) costs three times what building a plant with the same capacity would on Lady Bird Lake or at Decker Lake, and c) is unnecessary since peak use this summer has hovered around 100 million gallons below capacity and we won't need more for 20 years or more.

9:48, I make no claim at having researched it thoroughly, I was just reacting to a conversation with a cop while on vacation. This source seems to corroborate the fine amounts but adds that Germany also suspends drivers licenses for the offense. (See here for more detail.) We suspend licenses here, too, of course, if folks don't pay the surcharges, but that hasn't proved to be much of a deterrent.

Good comments, folks.

Anonymous said...

With all the bshitz that flows throughout all of Austin, I'm certain the "utility tunnel" isn't too big.


Soronel Haetir said...

I would again say it comes down to population density. Everything I've ever read about public transport indicates that it is a far more important factor than total population served.

And here Berlin leaves Austin (and most U.S. cities for that matter) far behind.

From Wikipedia:

Population (2008) 786,382
Area: 251.5 sq mi 
Average density: 3,126.6/sq mi

Population (2009) 3,439,100  
Area: 344.3 sq mi
Average density: 9,987.7/sq mi

I tried doing a search to come up with more than just average density looking for density distribution but couldn't find anything my screen reader could deal with. I would suspect that not only is Berlin more dense as demonstrated from the raw numbers above but that the actual density is higher still, with more people in more concentrated areas, while Austin would be closer to matching the average density across much of its area.

This would have to make me question even neighborhood bars as a solution. I suspect density plays into success for such a market as well, though perhaps the requirements aren't as high as that needed for mass transit.

Anonymous said...

I think the letter I sent you about my community Law enforcement that endagers the lives of everybody.And encourages neighbor's to snitch on neighbor's shows were are values are about handling this problem.In the toilet!

rodsmith said...

the biggest problem with fixing almost anything in this country is the first thing you would have to do is get the politicians to both THINK about the public AND get them to stop giving away the public funds to the world and STEALING THE REST.

JohnT said...

Grits, it looks like you picked up a spammer, chunxue.

PirateFriedman said...

The big question is how many lives would be saved and how much money would be spent on public transportation to get those results. Not sure most Americans would support the trade-off if they saw it.

Anonymous said...

Public transportation won't make it without a large taxi cab network.
Taxis in Texas all want the big fair, they don't want to drive someone a few miles to their home.
There are not taxis on every street corner either.

Most people in East Germany don't own cars. That's why no DWI.

Soronel Haetir said...

Also, here's (an admittedly anecdotal) view on DUI in Germany,

So even without a threat of prison it's not like the charge is a cakewalk.

I also found some links that indicate driving without a license in Germany is an offense that makes the Texas driver responsibility program look downright misery. 3-5k EUR fine, minimum 5 year loss of driving priviledge (and even then no guarantee that they'll let you have it). Along with the fact, of course, that Germany has much tougher standards for getting a license to begin with.

sunray's wench said...

anon @ 9.11 - it may have escaped your attention, but the wall came down 20 years ago. They are a unified Germany, probably with a better standard of living that most citizens of Texas.

It's not paradise, but it's one of the most efficient countries in Europe, and their secret is that most German citizens don't have credit cards. If they want something, they work longer hours to pay for it. They also don't purchase property as a rule, they rent. Only the UK and Ireland are different to the rest of Europe in that respect.

Kerry said...

I lived in an inner ring suburb of Cleveland where the whole town had been built before 1930, and it really did seem like there was a bar on every corner. And people did walk from their houses to go drink.

The Milwaukee Sentinel did an article in 2008 as part of a series on drinking and drunk driving in WI, and discussed a town's efforts at using a shuttle bus to curb drunk driving. You can read it here.

PirateFriedman said...

Sunray, per capita GDP is higher in the US than in Germany, in every measurement I've ever seen.


sunray's wench said...

Pirate ~ GDP is the nation as a whole. A high standard of living is subjective. Healthcare, employment (or risk of unemployment) the ability to attain the things individual value - those are what I would use to measure whether a country had a better standard of living than another.

Of course, many people in America will dismiss the whole debate as academic, simply because they see every European country as a Socialist state and close their eyes and ears to anything positive that may come from them.

Anonymous said...

Wench- Yea, I noticed the wall came down (Thanks to Ronald Reagan).
I also noticed that every former communist county survives because of capitalism and taxes.
Google "East Tax" "Germany".....

sunray's wench said...

Perhaps we should ask Scott, as he is our man on the ground at the moment?

Does Germany look clean, well run and prosperous (lots of construction work and few empty shops)? I wont ask if the Germans look happy, because they rarely do, but do they look healthy?

Kieran Hanrahan said...

I think there are cultural issues at work here as well.

I live in Ireland where DWI or DUI or simply "drink driving" has been a major problem. The Road Safety Authority has placed a major emphasis on campaigns that leave the public in no doubt as to how immoral and criminal DUI is... and this has been part of the reason behind a significant drop in RTA deaths. Better infrastructure, better cars, higher safety design in cars and less idiotic driving have all helped in this regard...

Germans in particular are very law abiding, for example they will not cross a road at a pedestrian crossing unless the lights tell them to do so, even if there is no traffic at all. They will wait for the light to go green before walking across the road. This, needless to say, would not happen in Ireland where jaywalking (your term) is one of the traditional hazards in urban driving!



BTW, if anyone can help me with a bit of research into current - and I stress current - Mexican police force structures and processes, I would be eternally grateful! ;0)