Drunk-Driving Laws Are Absurd

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The question of whether or not we ought to have draconian laws prohibiting drunk driving in this country hinges on another critical, yet all-too-often neglected question: Do drunk-driving laws actually reduce the incidence of drunk driving and thus make our roads and highways safer? If we answer this question in the affirmative, and determine to our satisfaction that drunk-driving laws do actually reduce drunk driving and make our roads safer, then we might be justified in thinking that the laws are useful and protect the public. If, on the other hand, we determine that drunk-driving laws do not actually reduce the incidence of drunk driving or make our roads safer, then we would do well to ask ourselves whether we need these laws at all. What would be the use, after all, of fining, imprisoning and terrorizing American drivers, if this ruthless police action does not have the effect of making our roads safer places?

It is my contention in this article that drunk-driving laws do not actually reduce the incidence of drunk driving. Hence, it is absolutely absurd for the state to waste billions of dollars each year hunting down drunk-drivers, trying them in courts, fining them astronomical amounts of money, and incarcerating them, when the state could effectively make America’s roads and highways just as safe by loosening up state licensing laws for taxi cabs and limousines.

In order for me to be able to make my case, I must first make some initial observations about drunk driving. First, it is important to note that when a man gets behind the wheel of an automobile while drunk he is taking a risk. His decision to drive drunk might result in him getting into a gruesome accident that takes his own life, the life of another driver, or other persons adjacent to him, or an accident that injures or seriously maims himself or other people. Should any of these scenarios actually occur, the drunk driver faces serious penalties — he could die in the accident, become permanently crippled or disfigured, or face charges for vehicular assault or murder if he hurts other people. These potential penalties for drunk driving exist even in the absence of stiff drunk-driving laws enacted by the state. In other words, even if there were no laws prohibiting drunk driving in this country, people who chose to drive drunk, and caused serious injury to others, would still face serious legal consequences for their actions — in addition to the possible injuries and death that they might cause themselves.

The case for ruthless laws punishing drunk driving rests on the assumption that these inherent and omnipresent penalties for drunk driving, (like death, disfigurement or a life sentence in prison), will not act as an effective deterrent. Drunk drivers, it is held, will discount the possibility of getting into a fiery crash that will kill them or send them to prison, (because of their "impaired judgment," to use the preferred nomenclature), which means that the state must step in and create additional penalties for drunk driving that will discourage the act even further. The state, then, swoops in with harsh penalties for driving while drunk or alcohol impaired, in the hope, (it is claimed, at least), of making our roads and highways safer by reducing the number of impaired drivers on the road.

(I should note in passing that the state’s claims to be trying to make our roads safer by outlawing and persecuting drunk drivers should be taken with a grain of salt, to say the least. Approximately 1 million Americans are killed every 25 years on America’s socialized road system, and the state has done virtually nothing in the way of reforming these death traps — besides focusing its attention on drunk drivers. The socialist planners of America’s roads apparently only care if drunk drivers kill people, and don’t care a whit if drivers are killed through their own negligence, mismanagement and typical socialistic incompetence [PDF].)

It all sounds so reasonable: because of their "impaired judgment," drunk drivers discount the danger of dying or hurting other people, so the state must implement harsh laws that discourage drunk driving even more. The problem with this idea, however, is that the state’s penalties for drunk driving are extremely lenient when compared to what could possibly occur as a natural consequence of drunk driving — like, death, disfigurement or a lifetime in prison. As such, it is naïve at best to think that the state’s relatively mild form of punishment could possibly dissuade a man from driving drunk, when not even the risk of death was able to discourage him from doing so.

In other words, what the state and other logic-eschewing groups would like for us to believe is the following:

  1. When a man is drunk, his "impaired judgment" makes him discount the possibility of getting into a horrible accident that might kill or injure him or someone else. As a result of discounting this risk, he is likely to go ahead and drive drunk anyway.
  2. This same drunken man, who thinks he can cheat death on the highway, will suddenly see the light, shut off his engine, and walk home if the state merely threatens him with a stint in jail if he drives.

If we look at these propositions without letting emotion cloud our judgment, is it not obvious that if a man thinks he can drive home and avoid killing himself or hurting other people (because of his "impaired judgment"), he is likely to think the very same thing about avoiding the relatively mild punishments of the police? What could possibly make us think that threatening a man with a lighter punishment than could result as a natural consequence of his actions will dissuade him from doing something, when the threat of the more severe natural punishments does not? Is this not similar to what occurs when the police attempt to deter "base jumping" in national parks by threatening to fine those who jump? If a man thinks he can avoid the natural and severe potential punishment of jumping off a cliff, (i.e., squashing himself on the rocks thousands of feet below), what could possibly make us think that the threat of a $500 fine will stop him?

My argument can be summed up with the following proposition:

If a man is intoxicated to the extent that he is a danger to himself and other drivers, and he believes that he is capable of avoiding killing himself or injuring others on the road, then he is just as likely to believe that he can avoid getting caught by the police.

It is true, I will concede, that the state’s drunk-driving laws probably do dissuade a few people from driving with alcohol in their veins. Some people probably are dissuaded from driving home from a restaurant after consuming two or three glasses of wine, and some college students probably designate a driver so that they do not all have to drive home from the party drunk. Big deal. Dissuading these people from driving while drunk could be accomplished just as effectively and without creating a police state by eliminating all licensing laws on taxi cabs and limousines in the United States, which would drastically reduce the cost and increase the supply of sober transportation for Americans. If taxis and limousines were as cheap in the United States as they are in Mexico, for example, do you really think that Americans would choose to drive while intoxicated in the same numbers as they presently do? If mom and dad could take a cheap taxi to the restaurant and both drink three or four glasses of wine, and make it home safely, don’t you think that they would choose to do so? Wouldn’t they prefer this to having mom sit through another dinner sans vin as the "designated driver," while dad inhales whiskey sours? And don’t you think college students would prefer to catch a ride to the party safely in a cheap limousine — with a bar inside — than for all of them to drive separately and dangerously after drinking? Finally, don’t you think that the serious alcoholic would prefer to catch a cheap and safe ride to his local tavern and back home safely, rather than waking up in county jail? That he doesn’t do so already has something to do with the fact that to catch a ride in a taxi will likely cost him more than his bar tab will.

There is thus no need to waste billions of dollars hunting down people who have had a few glasses of wine with dinner, trying them in court, and then sentencing them to jail — especially when these laws will have no effect on those people who are truly dangerously intoxicated and who believe that they can both drive home safely and avoid getting caught by the police. As usual, the source of a serious social ill lies in the state’s own laws and regulations, and the solution lies in the realm of the free-market.

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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