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