Getting liquored-up and getting behind the wheel hasn’t been cool for 25 years now, at least – and the general public opprobrium has apparently had positive effects. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the number of “alcohol-related” traffic deaths has dropped to about 0.63 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled vs. 1.64 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the early 1980s.
The question is, are tighter penalties for drunk driving – and more aggressive enforcement – the reason for the downtick? Or is it more a consequence of mass enlightenment that drinking to excess and driving isn’t a good idea? Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) says it’s the stricter laws but it’s probably a mix of both.
At some point a general epiphany seemed to occur to most people that made them think twice about getting behind the wheel after more than a couple drinks. The flip side, of course, is the fear instilled by the prospect of rolling up on a sobriety checkpoint, flunking the Breathalyzer test – and getting a night’s pass to accommodations in the county clink.
It’s interesting how we’ve swung from one extreme to the other in the space of just a few decades. Before the early 1980s, having “one for the road” was a common closing time/end of the night thing to do. Remember movies like “Cannonball Run” with Dean Martin driving a Ferrari 308 with one hand on the wheel and the other clutching a Chivas over ice? That was considered funny in those days. It still is – in the movie – but it’s also as politically incorrect as a George Lincoln Rockwell speech.
Imagine the reaction today. The “moms” would have a collective seizure; there would be a caravan of Caravans (and an odyssey of Odysseys) to the Capitol denouncing such recklessness and fecklessness…
Which brings us to the issue of political correctness as applied to the drunk-driving issue. It’s one thing to object to the idiots who put their own and others’ lives at risk by operating a motor vehicle when they’re swimming in Jack Daniels. No doubt, those people should feel the weight of the state descend upon them. But we’re now at the point of “defining drunkenness down” by lowering legal standards for impairment to the point of absurdity – and becoming depressingly habituated to East German Stasi-like “sobriety checkpoints” that subject people who have done nothing to even warrant suspicion to an intimidating once-over by armed agents of the state.
MADD, for example, has gone on the record arguing in favor of establishing what amounts to an almost zero-tolerance policy for any trace of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream — demanding that the laws be changed to define a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level of as little as .04 sufficient to incur a charge of driving under the influence.
That’s a bit much – right?
Most states have already set the maximum allowable BAC level at .08 – even though it is a fact that actual accidents (as opposed to the relentless theoretical “what if?” scenarios postulated by MADD) tend to happen only when a person’s BAC level is .10 or higher. This is why the laws defining “drunk” driving used to have .10 BAC as the legal threshold. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that minimal BAC levels of .06 or less -which can be reached after an average-sized person has had a single drink with his dinner – correlate with a greater likelihood of having an accident as a result of diminished capacity.
It’s one thing to lock up the person who is weaving all over the road – quite another to arrest a person at a sobriety checkpoint simply because he has trace amounts of alcohol in his blood.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving – a fervent backer of sobriety checkpoints – deploys some of the shrillest rhetoric this side of a termagant convention to shout down any who don’t share the group’s almost Carrie Nation-like neo-Prohibitionist zeal. “Opponents of sobriety checkpoints tend to be those who drink and drive frequently and who are concerned about being caught,” according to MADD — although no evidence is given to support this wild accusation.
Can’t a person legitimately object to the use of random stops by police absent probable cause without also endorsing or excusing “drunk driving” – just as one doesn’t have to be a “tax cheat” to object to random IRS audits – or “support the terrorists” because one believes that police should be required to secure a warrant before conducting a wiretap or search of anyone’s home?
Getting “drunks off the road” is one thing. Rescinding the Bill of Rights is something else.
Is it in keeping with a free society to treat everyone as a presumptive criminal until proved otherwise? Maybe we ought to begin asking ourselves whether the “ends justify the means” philosophy that is the reverse of the principles enshrined in our founding documents and which has become the de facto basis of law-writing (make that edict-issuing) in this country is the right philosophy to follow… .
There is arguably no principle more fundamental to the life of a free society than that a person should not have to deal with the agents of the state until he, as a specific individual, has given some objectively quantifiable reason for suspecting he has committed a crime or may be about to commit a crime.
It’s undeniable that MADD and other such groups deserve some credit for making it socially unacceptable to drive while drunk. But knowing when to say “when” applies just as equally to social and legal policy, too. Just because we went on a bender in the past doesn’t mean neo-Prohibitionism is the answer today.
Reasonable people favor reasonable laws.