Drunk Driving Laws Cause Drunk Driving Accidents

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On the western
outskirts of Denver, Colorado, a two-lane highway connects the town
of Golden, (of Coors renown), with the town of Boulder. The highway
winds through miles of mostly-uninhabited rolling hills, past the
city dump, and past the notoriously-polluted and now closed Rocky
Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. At the most windswept and isolated
point along this highway, and directly adjacent to the Rocky Flats
Nuclear facility, stands a completely isolated roadhouse called
the Rocky
Flats Lounge
. Despite its extreme isolation and the loss of
its customer base at the Rocky Flats Nuclear facility, the Rocky
Flats Lounge continues to draw many loyal patrons, due in large
part to its hospitality to bikers and Green Bay Packers fans.

When driving
past the Rocky Flats Lounge, one cannot help being struck by the
fact that its location is extremely conducive to drunk driving.
Imbibing customers must drive at least fifteen minutes in either
direction to get to civilization of any kind, and taxis are almost
nonexistent in the area. I have driven past the Rocky Flats Lounge
hundreds of times, and I've always wondered whether its patrons
were driving under the influence on the same highway with me.

In the
years before I came to understand anything about economics, I would
think to myself as I drove past this bar, "How can the State
allow them to have a liquor license, when it's so obvious that their
customers will have to drive home drunk on this dangerous highway?"
Not knowing anything about economics, I understandably only sought
for a proximate solution to this problem. The more I studied economics,
however, the more my view of the matter changed, to the point where
I now think to myself as I drive past the Rocky Flats Lounge, "Drunk
driving should be legalized, so that the customers of the Rocky
Flats Lounge can get home safely."

I came to this
realization, in the first place, because I couldn't figure out why
drunk drivers on this highway didn't choose to slow down. I imagined
that if I were a drunk driver on this highway, I would want to slow
down to make sure I didn't fly off the highway or get into a fiery
crash with another car. Why were the drunk drivers not doing this?

It then occurred
to me that I wasn't thinking about the costs of drunk driving in
the right way, because I was only considering one cost of drunk
driving. Under our current drunk driving laws, however, there is
an additional cost that every drunk driver is certainly aware of;
namely, getting caught drunk driving. The drunk driver is thus faced
with two serious costs to consider: 1) dying in a fiery crash, and
2) getting caught by the police and going to jail. The cost of getting
caught drunk driving and going to jail, moreover, is drastically
increased if the driver chooses to drive in a manner that draws
attention to himself — like driving ten miles per hour — even
if the driver knows that driving slowly is the safer thing to do.

So, the drunk
driver is faced with the following choices: 1) drive slowly and
safely, and almost certainly get arrested and go to jail for drunk
driving, or 2) drive the speed limit, and have a decent chance of
not getting arrested, although this increases one's chances of getting
in an accident. Understandably, many drunk drivers choose the latter
alternative, simply because the chance of arrest and jail time is
a certainty, whereas the chance of a fiery crash is only a distant
risk. (If you think my reasoning here is unsound, ask yourself whether
you've ever driven 80 miles per hour because you're running late
for a meeting, believing that the certain costs of being late outweigh
the increased, though distant, costs associated with driving faster).
In other words, the prohibition of drunk driving actually serves
to increase unsafe driving practices, simply because drunk drivers
don't want to go to jail, and are, consequently, unwilling to drive
slower than the speed limit.

Even more
importantly, these costs make drunk driving at the speed limit even
more likely the more times a man was arrested for drunk driving.
If a man already has a DUI, then the next DUI he gets will carry
a much more severe penalty. Given this even stiffer penalty, he
is even less likely to slow down and drive safely, because
the costs of getting caught are so much higher.

This problem
cannot be solved, moreover, simply by getting rid of speed limits,
(although, to be sure, speed limits are totally arbitrary, and ought
indeed to be completely abolished for this reason alone). Getting
rid of speed limits would only encourage drunk drivers to drive
even faster so that they can get off the road even faster
to avoid a drunk driving arrest.

Imagine, on
the other hand, that drunk driving was totally legalized. The costs
for the average drunk driver would alter dramatically, because the
only serious cost he would have to consider and avoid is getting
into a fiery crash, and going to jail for negligent manslaughter
or murder. The average drunk driver would no longer have to race
along at the speed limit, nervously eyeing his rear view mirror,
anxiously trying to avoid arrest. He would simply slow down to make
sure he didn't get into an accident. This conclusion holds irrespective
of the fact that more people would probably choose to drive drunk
if it were legalized.

I am not suggesting
that manslaughter, assault, or murder be legalized. On the contrary,
drunk drivers like everyone else ought to be forced to pay restitution
to the victims of their negligent behavior, if it results in injury
or property damage. But, there is absolutely no reason to think
that a drunk driver going five, or even twenty, miles per hour is
any more dangerous than, say, eighty-nine year old Aunt Jenny, screaming
down the highway in her Cadillac at 75 miles per hour. Nor can we
simply assume that he is any more dangerous than Billy Bob, driving
his 18-wheeler down I-80 at 80 miles per hour without sleeping for
five days. Yet no one thinks it should be the law that Aunt Jenny
or Billy Bob ought to be arrested, jailed, and fined for having
chosen to drive under these conditions. Aunt Jenny or Billy Bob
are only punished if they hurt somebody, and this is precisely the
same standard that should govern drunk driving.

Imagine, however,
that we were to attempt to prohibit "driving while tired."
Under current U.S. law, people are allowed to drive while tired,
and many people who know they are tired slow down to compensate
for their slower reactions. If we prohibited driving while tired,
however, every tired person in America would make sure he didn't
drive slower than the speed limit, or otherwise draw attention to
himself. What would be the result? The answer is, of course, that
tired people would get into both more accidents and more serious
accidents, because they would have been goaded by the law into driving
faster than they otherwise would have voluntarily.

My argument
here notwithstanding, I wouldn't hold my breath for the day that
drunk driving laws are abolished — no matter how much more dangerous
they make our highways. Until then, we just have to keep our eyes
peeled for the many dangerous drunk drivers on the road whose gas
pedals are being artificially pressed by drunk driving laws.

March
30, 2007

Mark R.
Crovelli [send him mail]
is a graduate student in the department of political science at
the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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