Drunk Driving vs. Sober Driving: What's the Difference?

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One of the most glaring problems with the drunk-driving laws in this country is that they clearly discriminate against and ruthlessly penalize only one class of dangerous drivers. Drunk drivers are subject to arrest, thousands of dollars of fines, lengthy jail or prison sentences, loss of driving "privileges," alcohol abuse counseling, probation, et cetera. Other dangerous drivers are not subject to these draconian penalties. If Grandma gets pulled over by the police for careening in and out of the median, for example, she will not be wrenched from her Cadillac, handcuffed, incarcerated, counseled, or fined into bankruptcy. At worst, so long as she has not hurt anyone, she will be escorted home and possibly lose her "privilege" to drive on government roads in the future (she will not lose the "privilege" of paying for government roads, however). Similarly, a man who chooses not to wear his DMV-mandated glasses or contact lenses while driving does not have to worry about getting stopped at "corrective lens checkpoints" manned by nightstick-wielding troopers searching for un-bespectacled drivers to humiliate, arrest, fine, and send to jail. On the contrary, this type of dangerous driver is merely instructed to wear his glasses if he is stopped by the police, and he is issued a perfunctory (and revenue-generating) citation. He certainly does not have to worry about the possibility of going to state prison for several years when he decides to drive without his glasses — unless he actually hurts someone.

This severe legal persecution of drunk drivers alone, instead of all dangerous drivers, makes a complete mockery of our legal system. It is a situation in which one group of demonized and socially-despised drivers is mercilessly persecuted, while other non-demonized drivers are virtually ignored — even though both groups of drivers put other people’s lives at risk. The man who refuses or forgets to wear his glasses, when he needs those glasses to drive safely, puts other people’s lives at risk just as much as the man who drinks five cocktails before getting behind the wheel. Grandma is putting other people’s lives at risk when she decides to drive to the beauty parlor lacking the requisite motor and mental abilities. The teenager who thumbs through his CD case while flying down the highway at 65 miles per hour is putting other people’s lives at risk. The soccer mom who flails wildly at her children in the back seat, imploring them to stop pulling each other’s hair while she’s driving, puts other people’s lives at risk. The police officer who steers his patrol car with his knees, while he types on his on-board computer, puts other drivers at risk. The woman who balances a bag of makeup supplies on her knees while slacking on mascara in the HOV lane puts other people’s lives at risk. The truck driver who leans over to search for a misplaced Twinkie under his seat, puts other people’s lives at risk. The list could quite literally be extended infinitely.

Do any of these other dangerous drivers face the possibility of waking up on a concrete slab in the county jail for having recklessly put other people’s lives at risk? They most definitely do not; in fact, they are almost always completely ignored by lawmakers and the police. They might be fined a nominal amount, and they might get a point or two deducted from their licenses if they get pulled over, but they most certainly do not have to worry about going to state prison if they become "repeat offenders." They do not have to worry about losing their jobs or filling out job applications asking them whether they have ever been arrested for applying mascara while driving. They do not have to worry about losing their licenses to drive for years because they were caught scrounging for a Twinkie under their seat. And they certainly do not have to worry about the government extracting thousands upon thousands of dollars from them.

For a nation that is supposedly governed by the rule of law, this disparate treatment of people who have done exactly the same thing, (namely, recklessly putting other people’s lives at risk), is completely unjustifiable. Indeed, for one group of people to be singled out and ruthlessly punished for having put other drivers’ lives at risk, while other people are simply ignored or slapped on the wrist when they, too, put other drivers’ lives at risk, makes a complete mockery of the idea of equality under the law in this country. It is very much like what would occur if the police decided to demonize, hunt down and ruthlessly punish all shoplifters with blue eyes, while letting all other shoplifters completely off the hook. It is a disgusting and invariably hypocritical situation in which the law is applied discriminatively against only one class of people who have been arbitrarily singled out for persecution.

The ancient idea of "equality under the law," which has merely been paid lip service in this country since the (illegal) enactment of the 14th amendment, means, in part, that people who commit the same offenses shall be treated exactly the same under the law. The principle was famously articulated by Cicero, when he wrote "Let the punishment be equal with the offense." According to this ancient principle, people who commit the crime of murder, for example, shall be treated exactly the same, regardless of their race, gender, political connections — or anything else. The principle has its roots in the recognition that, since all human beings have exactly the same moral standing and have the same rights and responsibilities, the law ought to treat every single one of them equally when they commit the same offense. Without this principle we have no basis upon which to consistently criticize state-imposed segregation racial profiling — or even slavery.

When it comes to drunk-driving laws in this country, however, the principle of equality under the law has flown completely out the window. Men are arrested and ruthlessly punished for drunk driving only on the basis of the claim that they are "dangerous." Indeed, drunk drivers are arrested and punished even when they have not have actually harmed any other person. (The same is of course true with regard to so-called "drug offenders," who are ruthlessly punished without the existence of any actual victims of their alleged crimes). Because drunk drivers are punished extremely harshly even when they have caused no harm to other people, we are forced to conclude that the alleged "crime" that they have committed is only to have put other drivers’ lives at risk.

If this is indeed the idea motivating the ruthless persecution of drunk drivers in this country, and we are committed to the idea of equality under the law, is it not clear that all dangerous drivers must be equally mercilessly punished? For example, if we are going to punish people because they are statistically more likely to cause an accident, even if they have not personally hurt anyone, then should we not arrest, imprison and fine all people over 65 years of age who are caught driving at all? These are clearly an extremely dangerous group of drivers, after all. As USA Today reports:

"The [fatality statistics] are particularly daunting at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 9.6 million people 85 and older by 2030, up 73% from today. Road safety analysts predict that by 2030, when all baby boomers are at least 65, they will be responsible for 25% of all fatal crashes. In 2005, 11% of fatal crashes involved drivers that old."

If one of these extremely dangerous elderly people should choose to drive anyway, should we not treat him in exactly the same manner as drunk drivers; namely, set up checkpoints to catch him, handcuff him, stick him in jail for the night, fine him thousands of dollars, and send him to counseling and state prison? Should we not set up a foundation, (say, Sons Against Elderly Drivers, or SAED) that can incessantly nag us about the dangers of elderly driving, and publish unending streams of articles about sons and daughters cut down in their youth (or in old age) by half-crazed elderly drivers? After all, by choosing to get behind the wheel, this group of Americans puts other people’s lives very much at risk. These are extremely dangerous people, you see, and it is madness to allow them to get off the hook when they choose to put other people’s lives at risk, and who now can get off with probations when they, say, kill ten people with their cars.

Elderly drivers are merely one menacing group of drivers that we need to ruthlessly punish "before anyone gets hurt or killed." Take women (and men, I suppose) who apply cosmetics while they drive. These are extremely dangerous drivers, whose eyes are focused on their reflections in their visor mirror rather than on the road ahead of them. Some of these crazy drivers do not even have their hands on the steering wheels of their cars. If we are going to have any semblance of equality under the law in this country, we must also treat these people to the same merciless punishments that we currently dole out only to drunk drivers. We should, in short, handcuff, arrest, humiliate, and incarcerate these horrid women. We could start things off by making it illegal to possess an "open container" of mascara or rouge in a motor vehicle. If the principle is that dangerous drivers need to be punished without mercy, as we currently punish drunk drivers, then we had better hire some more police officers!

We’re not done yet, though. We’d better go after all people who use cellular telephones in their cars and trucks. And I don’t mean just giving them a slap on the wrist, like many states currently do. I mean treating them as the dangerous drivers that they are, and treating them to a few months in state prison like we do with drunk drivers who haven’t hurt anyone. A little stint in the joint (as we do with the drunks) ought to teach her not to so much as "glance" at her cell phone while driving. We’d better go after everyone who even so much as touches his radio or CD case in his car, because this could easily cause him to get into an accident. Never mind that he has not hurt anyone — yet. A couple of thousands of dollars of fines and complete social-ostracism will teach him to know better than to risk other people’s lives. Why stop at just playing with the radio, though, when the statistics show that certain kinds of music cause accidents as well? If we are going to stick to the principle of equality under the law, we had better ruthlessly punish any and everyone caught with a Metallica CD in his car before he has a chance to kill someone. We go after drunk drivers who put other people’s lives at risk but don’t hurt anyone, so why should we not do the same with these dangerous drivers? The same goes for anyone eating in his car, talking in his car, driving in the snow, driving older cars, driving at night, driving under the influence of teenage or menstrual hormones …

By focusing on just selected group of dangerous drivers I have neglected to note that driving an automobile is itself one of the most dangerous things a man can do in the United States — for both himself and other people on the road. If the principle is that men must be punished if they put other people’s lives at risk, which is the guiding principle for the drunk-driving laws in this country, then we had better go all the way and prohibit driving in general. Whenever a person gets behind the wheel of an automobile, after all, he puts not only his own life at risk, but also the lives of everyone else on the road with him. If you object to this idea of banning driving altogether, then you are a cold-hearted bastard who has never known someone who has been killed in a car accident.

Of course, there is one way around this conclusion that is also faithful to the principle of equality under the law, and that is to only punish people if they actually hurt other people. This applies to drivers over 65 years of age, teenagers, mascara-applying women, and also to drunk drivers. This option can be universally applied to all human beings at all times and places, comports with the principle of equality under the law, and would not necessitate a complete police-and-nanny state. It is also an option that recognizes man’s God-given rights to life, liberty, and property.

It is also an option that does not involve us in the supreme hypocrisy of pointing to the beer can in our brother’s hand with the mascara wand in our own.

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

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