There is a virtual consensus among the American public that drunk driving is an horrific crime that deserves only ruthless punishment. Indeed, the level of consensus on this issue is so unanimous that virtually the only debate that ever occurs with regard to drunk driving revolves around how best to step up enforcement and inflict ever more merciless punishments on people who choose to drive drunk. Few and far between are any substantive criticisms of the idea of hunting down and imprisoning people, just because they happen to have an arbitrary amount of alcohol in their blood.
One of the major reasons why this level of consensus has emerged in recent decades is that the proponents of drunk-driving prohibition have seized the moral high ground. They have accomplished this primarily by portraying drunk drivers as uniquely dangerous and uniquely evil drivers — drunk drivers are the great and deadly scourge of the modern world. The drunk driver is painted as the moral and legal equivalent of a man pointing a loaded shotgun at a crowd of innocent people — a menace crying out for the state to step in and "disarm" (i.e., mercilessly punish him) before he kills or hurts anyone.
The glaring problem with the argument that drunk drivers are uniquely dangerous and uniquely evil, however, is that there are plenty of other drivers in this world that are equally dangerous and deadly, but who are not vilified, hunted down and imprisoned by the state. There are sleepy drivers, drivers toying with their stereos, drivers old enough to have seen Great Depression I, drivers with dogs on their laps, drivers putting on makeup, drivers with glasses thicker than their taillights, teenage drivers, drivers looking at maps, drivers with the flu, drivers screaming at their spouses, drivers with kids fighting in the backseat, drivers eating tacos, virtually every single driver in Los Angeles…
Recognizing the fact that there are plenty of other idiotic and deadly dangerous drivers on the road, drunk-driving prohibitionists have to supplement their portrait of drunk drivers with the idea that drunk drivers "choose" to get behind the wheel while intoxicated, and this fact makes them uniquely dangerous and evil. According to this commonplace argument, Grandma didn’t "choose" to slow down her reflexes and become shorter than her steering wheel, but the evil drunk driver does "choose" to get behind the wheel after drinking. Similarly, one often hears the claim that people don’t "choose" to become sleepy while driving, but they obviously "choose" to drink alcohol before driving. Hence, we are urged to conclude, drunk drivers deserve all the punishment we can throw at them for having "chosen" to drive drunk.
As a rhetorical strategy designed to vilify drunk drivers as uniquely dangerous and uniquely negligent, it would be difficult to contest the effectiveness of this argument. When one looks at the argument itself, however, one cannot help but be struck by how thoroughly foolish and fallacious it is.
In the first place, it should be obvious that drunk drivers do not always choose to become "drunk." For example, imagine a man and his wife going out for a nice meal of tapas and margaritas. They do not intend to get drunk, by any means, but to a very large extent the choice is not up to them. The bartender could be distracted when he mixes the drinks, (or he could just be a good sport), and thus might make them much stronger than the couple is expecting. It is easy to play armchair designated driver and condemn the couple for having "chosen" to drive drunk afterward, but it seems disingenuous at the very least to describe their accidental intoxication as a uniquely deliberate "choice" worthy of time spent in jail.
The problem with the argument that drunk drivers are uniquely responsible for having "chosen" to drive runs much deeper than this, however. Indeed, the argument asks us to believe two contradictory things about the drunk driver. On the one hand the argument specifically asks us to believe that drunk drivers are uniquely responsible for "choosing" to get behind the wheel, but, on the other hand, the argument is predicated upon the assumption that drunk drivers are hopelessly dangerous, due to their lack of "judgment." The argument, in other words, looks something like this:
A: Unlike other deadly dangerous drivers, (like the decrepit elderly, for example), drunk drivers are uniquely responsible for "choosing" to get behind the wheel in an intoxicated state.
B: Drunk drivers are extremely dangerous because they thoroughly lack the judgment to be able to drive safely.
It should be obvious that these propositions contradict one another. Drunk drivers cannot be both uniquely responsible for their choices and lacking judgment at the same time. If we want to say that drunk drivers lack the necessary judgment to decide when it is safe to drive, then we cannot at the same time say that they are uniquely responsible for their actions. In fact, we would be closer to the mark if we said that they were less responsible for their "choices." Conversely, if we want to say that drunk drivers are uniquely responsible for their "choice" to get behind the wheel, then we must not say that they lack the judgment to decide when it is safe to drive.
The logical problems only multiply when we shift our attention to other deadly dangerous drivers. The argument that drunk drivers are uniquely responsible and uniquely dangerous because they "choose" to get behind the wheel rests upon the ludicrous notion that other deadly dangerous drivers do not "choose" their impairment. Extremely dangerous elderly drivers, as was noted above, are often portrayed as helpless victims of time, whereas drunk drivers are portrayed as calculating and diabolical villains. But, in what sense can we really describe grandma’s decision to get behind the wheel as any less of a deliberate "choice" than the drunk driver’s? To be sure, grandma did not "choose" to let time ravage her mind and body, but she absolutely does "choose" to turn the ignition in her gigantic Buick and creep out of her driveway. The same is true of the cross-country motorist who gets sleepy — while he does not "choose" to get tired, he undeniably does "choose" to continue driving in that condition.
The simple fact of the matter is that drunk drivers are exactly the same as other drivers, and they are responsible for their actions in exactly the same manner, and to exactly the same degree, as other deadly dangerous drivers. Any appeal to the fact that drunk drivers "choose" to get behind the wheel is completely irrelevant, because all people, no matter what their condition, "choose" to get behind the wheel and drive. The fact that other drivers are extremely dangerous should not be allowed to be ignored or forgotten simply because if the irrelevant fact that drunk drivers "choose" to drive drunk. Of course they do, and so does everyone else who drives in a dangerous condition.
This brings us to the question of what is to be done about all of these extremely dangerous drivers on the road. Simple logical and legal consistency demands that we deal with all of these drivers in exactly the same way. The woman who plays with her iPod, thereby jeopardizing the lives of bystanders, must be treated exactly like the man who drives after imbibing at his local pub. Both are responsible for driving, and they both put other people’s lives at risk. Because we must deal with these dangerous drivers the same way, our options are relatively limited.
One option would be to start treating all dangerous drivers, (like those who are caught driving over the age of 65, those caught eating hamburgers while driving, those caught playing with their radios while driving, etc.), exactly the same as we now treat drunk drivers. We could identify all these deadly dangerous drivers and send them all to jail. This could be accomplished by doubling or tripling the number of police on the roads, having mandatory and permanent checkpoints on all major roads and highways, and installing cameras in everyone’s cars to make sure they never put other people’s lives at risk. This solution would certainly be consistent with treating all dangerous drivers equally, but it would have the inconvenient side effect of exterminating any semblance of freedom in America. It would also be slightly difficult to put this into practice, since the police have a nasty little tendency to drive drunk themselves, and so do the elected officials who are supposedly in charge of the police. It would also be a fairly expensive option, since we would have to build jails large enough to incarcerate…well, everyone.
Another option would be to simply recognize the fact that people are responsible for their actions, and only fine and incarcerate them if they actually cause harm to another person. Yes, this option would mean that we would have to leave drunk drivers alone unless they actually hurt someone, just as we now do with drivers who are sleepy or are decrepitly aged. But, is this not the same standard that we employ in other areas of criminal law? We do not deem it morally or legally acceptable for the police to raid the poorer areas of our cities to search out and incarcerate people they think will become criminals one day, simply because the poor are more likely to commit certain crimes. We do not deem it morally or legally acceptable for the police to round up and imprison people according to race, based upon the fact that certain races commit disproportionate amounts of crime. Why, then, do we allow the state to do precisely this to drunk drivers, based solely on the assumption that drunk drivers may harm other people, when we would condemn it if it was done to any other segment of society?
Both justice and freedom demand that we choose the latter option, and not the option of treating one group of people as potential criminals, all in need of incarceration.
Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.