Drunk Driving (Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior)
Drunk driving results in one of the most costly social consequences of ALCO-HOL abuse. The toll on human life and health exacted by drunk drivers can, on its own, make alcohol abuse one of the most serious U.S. social problems. The extent and consequences of drunk driving demonstrate the challenges of harmonizing a drinking culture with a modern industrial society.
The combination of drinking and driving has been recognized as a serious problem since the invention of the automobile in the 1880s. In 1904, the Quarterly Journal on Inebriety editorialized that "the precaution of railroad companies to have only total abstainers guide their engines will soon extend to the owners of these new motor wagonswith the increased popularity of these wagons, accidents of this kind will multiply rapidly." By 1910, drunk driving had already been codified as a misdemeanor offense. Moreover, the dangerous mixture of alcohol and driving was a key point in the Prohibitionists' argument in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment.
During the 1950s and 1960s, with postwar prosperity and a developing highway network, both alcohol abuse and traffic safety became serious national widespread issues. The Highway Safety Act of 1966 was crucial to mobilizing attention and resources in an attack against drunk driving. In effect, it established a federal (not just a state and local) jurisdiction by creating the National Highway Safety Bureau, the precursor of the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), and it authorized the U.S. Department of Education's 1968 Report, Alcohol and Highway Safety. This report found that "the use of alcohol by drivers and pedestrians leads to some 25,000 deaths and a total of at least 800,000 crashes in the United States each year." The report warned that "this major source of human morbidity will continue to plague our mechanically powered society until its ramifications and many present questions have been exhaustively explored and the precise possibilities for truly effective countermeasures determined."
NHTSA became the main sponsor of research and action projects aimed at reducing drunk driving. In 1970, NHTSA launched the Alcohol Safety Action Project (ASAP), the first major U.S. initiative against drunk driving. The ASAP, established in thirty-five communities, sought to achieve a significant reduction in drunk driving through a mixture of intensive countermeasuresncluding law enforcement, rehabilitation, and education. These programs were rigorously monitored. Unfortunately, despite huge increases in arrests and tens of thousands of referrals to drunk-driver schools and rehabilitation programs, a significant decrease in drunk driving could not be confirmed, and the ASAP was terminated in 1977.
The attack on drunk driving did not subside. In the late 1970s, there emerged a remarkable grass-roots anti-drunk driving movement comprised of victims, their families, and many other concerned citizens. MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING(MADD), Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD), and REMOVE INTOXICATED DRIVERS (RID) opened local chapters throughout the United States and vigorously campaigned for new and tougher drunk-driving countermeasures. The crusade launched by these groups attracted a great deal of media attention, vaulting drunk driving to the top of the nation's social problems agenda. In 1982, President Ronald W. Reagan appointed a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. Congress linked state highway funds to the states' passage of specified anti-drunk driving measures, including a minimum drinking age of twenty-one. Ultimately, every state raised its drinking age accordingly. The states passed a deluge of legislation, providing for more and better law enforcement and more severe criminal penalties of a greater rangencluding mandatory jail terms, automatic license forfeiture, public education, drunk-driver schools, and rehabilitation.
MAGNITUDE OF THE PROBLEM
More than 2 million people are arrested each year for drunk driving. The actual number of offenses, while unknown and unknowable, must be far greater, since only a fraction of all violators are apprehended. A few researchers have mounted roadside surveys in which drivers are stopped and asked to voluntarily provide a breath sample from which the amount of alcohol in the blood can be calculated. While this is the best strategy for determining the actual amount of drunk driving, there are many problems with this methodology (which roads? what times? how many refusals?). A 1985 Minnesota roadside survey found that of 838 drivers on the road between 8:00 P.M. and 3:00 A.M. (prime time for drunk driving), 82.3 percent tested negative for any alcohol, 6 percent tested at BLOOD ALCOHOL CONCENTRATION (BAC) 0.05-0.09 percent (included as a lesser Driving While Intoxicated [DWI] offense in some states), and 2.4 percent tested above the drunk-driving threshold of BAC0.1 percent.
Drunk drivers do not pose a uniform risk to themselves, their passengers, other motorists, and pedestrians. The most dangerous of the drunk drivers are the vehicular equivalent of the "fighting drunk"; they drive far in excess of the speed limit, weave in and out of traffic, and cross into lanes of traffic going in the opposite direction. At the low end of the continuum are drunk drivers who make an impaired effort to drive safely; although operating with diminished skill and judgment, they pose less of a risk than the agressive drunk drivers.
The most impressive experimental study of the causal role of alcohol in traffic crashes was carried out during the 1960s by Professor Robert Borkenstein (inventor of the BREATHALYZER) and his University of Indiana colleagues. The researchers obtained breath samples from 6,000 accident-involved drivers and, as controls, from 7,500 non-accident-involved drivers. They found that 6.3 percent of the accident-involved drivers, but fewer than 1 percent of the control drivers, had BACs equal to or greater than 0.1 percent (the prevailing definition of drunk driving in the 1980s). Moreover, each higher BAC level included a disproportionate number from the accident-involved group. Thus Borkenstein and his colleagues concluded that "BACs above .04% are definitely associated with an increased accident rate. The probability of accident-involvement increases rapidly at BACs above .15%. When drivers with BACs over 0.08% have accidents, they disproportionately involve only the driver's vehicle, and are more costly in terms of personal injury and property damage."
While most drunk-driving episodes do not result in a crash or injuries, the aggregate personal and property damage perpetrated by drunk drivers is staggering. A good deal of methodological controversy exists about the percentage of the approximately 45,000 annual traffic fatalities in the United States that can be attributed to drunk drivers. NHTSA's Fatal Accident Reporting System, which has been operating since the mid-1970s, presents important information about alcohol and traffic fatalities but does not attempt to estimate what proportion of all traffic deaths were caused by drunken driving. James Fell and Terry Klein, using statistical modeling techniques, have estimated that approximately 30 percent of all traffic fatalities can be attributed to drunk driving; other analyses have put this estimate at 50 percent.
Drunk drivers themselves, often in single-car collisions, comprise a large proportion of those who are killed, giving fatal drunk-driving episodes as much resemblance to suicide as to homicide. Nevertheless, each year thousands of innocent pedestrians and motorists are killed by drunk drivers, and tens of thousands are badly injured. There is also a huge amount of property damage.
It is difficult to find reliable data on which to base a profile of the drunk driver. Using arrest data, we find that the vast majority, 90 percent, of drunk drivers are male and white. Despite the common belief that teenage drivers are most likely to be drunk, it is the mid-twenties age group that deserves this notoriety. Since it takes heavy drinking (from four to six drinks in two hours, depending on the drinker's weight) to reach the prohibited level, it is unlikely that light drinkers very often commit drunk-driving offenses. Thus, people who drive drunk are likely to be heavy drinkers and alcohol abusers. Nevertheless, light and moderate drinkers may on occasion drive drunk, perhaps due to a binge. Since light and moderate drinkers greatly outnumber heavy and abusive drinkers, they may in fact comprise a substantial proportion of arrested drunk drivers.
The consensus of studies based on screening tests of drunk drivers is that about 50 percent arrested for this offense are alcohol abusers, about 35 percent are social drinkers, and the remainder fall in between. While the categories alcohol abuser and social drinker are amorphous, a disproportionately high percentage of those arrested for drunk driving are actually heavy drinkers.
The large majority of drunk drivers arrested in any given year have not been arrested before. A well-executed Minnesota study found that only 7 percent of drivers involved in fatal accidents had been convicted of drunk driving in the preceding three years; of drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents, 13 percent had a DWI conviction in the previous 3 years, and 25 percent had a license revocation during the preceding 8 years. The low official rate of recidivism probably means that the chance of a drunk driver's being caught is extremely small.
THE CRIME OF DRUNK DRIVING
The first drunk-driving laws made it an offense to drive while intoxicated or to drive under the influence (DUI) of alcohol. Starting in the 1950s, states began to pass per se laws, which made it an offense to operate a motor vehicle with a BAC that exceeds certain levels. When a suspect is arrested for drunk driving, he or she is asked to take a deep breath and blow into a machine (the Breathalyzer is one model) that measures the amount of alcohol in the breath and converts it into a measure of the amount of alcohol in the blood. Pursuant to implied consent laws, suspects who refuse to provide a deep-lung breath sample are penalized by loss of their driver's license and sometimes by other sanctions as well. The evolution of breath-testing equipment, including hand-held devices (like the Intoxilyzer), has greatly eased the identification and conviction of drunk drivers. Despite folklore to the contrary, it is extremely rare that suspects who "fail" the breath test obtain acquittals. Indeed, the conviction rate for drunk driving is well over 90 percent.
In most states, a first drunk-driving offense is a misdemeanor, and a second offense within a specified time period (up to ten years in some states) is a felony. In a few states, a first offense is treated as a traffic violation, a second offense a misdemeanor, and a third offense a felony. Punishments vary from state to state; however, the usual range of punishments includes forfeiture of a driver's license for up to 1 year, fines of 500 to 1,000 dollars, and incarceration up to 30 days. In the late 1980s, spurred by the anti-drunk driving citizens' groups and federal financial incentives, several states passed laws mandating at least forty-eight hours of incarceration for a first DWI offense and a longer time for a second or subsequent offense. Another penalty that has been gaining popularity is the automatic and immediate forfeiture of the driver's license at the police station when the suspect fails or refuses to take the breath test (administrative per se law). In the early 1990s, and once again in response to federal pressure, states began lowering the prohibited BAC from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent.
At least since the early 1970s, the criminal justice system's processing of drunk drivers has been linked to alcohol-treatment programs. In many jurisdictions, all drunk-driving offenders are routinely screened for ALCOHOLISM and alcohol abuse. Alcoholics and abusers may be diverted from prosecution to TREATMENT. More likely, however, the judge will require the offender to participate in treatment as a condition of probation or in order to obtain a provisional or regular driver's license. In some jurisdictions, the criminal-justice system is the largest source of clients flowing into alcohol-treatment programs. Thus, enforcement of the drunk-driving laws is one of the major ways that alcohol abusers are brought into the alcohol-treatment matrix.
In addition to the standard alcohol treatments, the attack on drunk driving has produced one unique kind of treatmenthe drinking-driver school, which several million people have passed through since the mid-1970s. States and localities that have such schools often require all drunk drivers to attend. New York's school consists of five two-hour sessions and two three-hour sessions. The classes provide information about such matters as the deterioration of driving skills at different BAC levels, the inability to counteract intoxication with coffee or cold showers, and criminal penalties for drunk driving. People taking these classes are also required to fill out the Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (MAST) to determine whether they are alcohol abusers.
Enforcement of drunk-driving laws is the responsibility of local police, county sheriffs, and the state police or highway patrol. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents police from stopping cars at random and requiring drivers to take breath tests. Police must have probable cause to believe that drunk driving or some other offense (including traffic offenses) has been, is, or is about to be committed. Once a driver has been legitimately stopped, the police officer can order the driver to submit to a field sobriety test, which may consist of walking heel-to-toe, counting backwards, or performing other tasks that reveal intoxication. If the driver's performance on the test gives the officer probable cause to believe that the driver is intoxicated, the officer will arrest the driver. At the station, drivers will be told that they are required by the implied-consent law to submit to a breath test; refusal to cooperate will lead to license revocation.
In the 1980s, as states and localities searched for more effective anti-drunk driving strategies, some police departments mounted roadblocks at which every car (or every nth car) was briefly stopped and the driver briefly observed and sometimes questioned. If the officer detected alcohol, the driver was pulled over and required to submit to a breath test. Since these drunk-driving roadblocks were not based upon probable cause, they were challenged. In 1990, however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld drunk-driving roadblocks under its administrative search doctrine (Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 110 S. Ct. 2481). The Court ruled that as long as the roadblocks are situated in a fixed location, overseen by high-level officials, and operated nondiscriminatorily, they do not violate the Fourth Amendment.
DETERRING THE DRINKING DRIVER
Deterrence based on the threat of arrest, conviction, and punishment remains the chief strategy in the attack on drunk driving. During the 1980s, state and local governments have established dozens of strike forces and passed hundreds of laws aiming to raise the costs to the offender of driving while intoxicated. In a series of empirical evaluations of police crackdowns and elevated maximum punishments in the United States and abroad, the sociologist H. Laurence Ross found that this type of law-enforcement escalation usually produces a reduction in drunk driving (as measured by single-vehicle fatalities), but not a long-term reduction. "No such policies have been scientifically demonstrated to work over time under conditions achieved in any jurisdictionthe option of merely increasing penalties for drinking and driving has been strongly discredited by experience to date."
While Ross has done far more empirical research than anybody else on deterring the drunk driver, his conclusion is not uncontroversial. One criticism is that he uses single-vehicle automobile fatalities to measure the amount of drunk driving; however, this kind of accident might not be strongly associated with the full range of drunk driving, but only with a narrow group, the most drunken and reckless of drunk driving. Possibly, while law-enforcement escalations cannot affect the kind of drunk drivers who kill themselves in single-vehicle crashes, they might be effective in the far more numerous non-fatal drunk-driving episodes that are engaged in by less pathological alcohol abusers and sociopathological persons.
The number of traffic fatalities has fallen from the late 1980s into the 1990s; drunk-driving fatalities seem to have fallen more than non-alcohol-related accidents. There may be reasons for this other than deterrence, including general reductions in alcohol consumption and abuse and more responsible public attitudes toward sober drivingowever, a marginal deterrence effect cannot be ruled out.
OTHER ANTIDRUNK-DRIVING STRATEGIES
In addition to deterrence, states and localities have implemented many other anti-drunk driving strategies. Since all these strategies are being used simultaneously, it is impossible to attribute any reductions to one strategy over another.
Some courts have made punitive damages available in drunk-driving cases. This allows the victim of a drunk driver to recover any amount of money a jury deems appropriate for punishment. Some states permit insurance coverage of punitive damages, thereby negating whatever deterrent effect such damages might produce, but not negating a windfall for the victim.
In some states, legislatures and courts have expanded civil (tort) liability for causing drunk-driving injuries to include commercial hosts and package sellers of alcohol. While these DRAMSHOP LAWS vary from state to state, they essentially make purveyors of alcohol to underage or intoxicated persons liable for the injuries caused by such persons to themselves or others. A few state courts have even made social hosts liable for the alcohol-related traffic injuries caused by their guests.
An essential strategy for incapacitating drunk drivers is taking away their licenses to drive. Several studies have shown that drunk drivers who lose their drivers' licenses are less likely to have a recurrence than drunk drivers who are fined, sent to jail, or assigned to mandatory treatment programs (actually, all these sanctions can be imposed together). Nevertheless, when licenses are suspended or revoked, a good deal of licenseless driving takes placehich is not surprising in a society where people depend on automobiles for their economic and social lives. Several states also have laws that authorize vehicle impoundment or forfeiture, but these sanctions are rarely used, perhaps because of the sacred status of the automobile as expensive private property.
Opportunity blocking refers to anti-crime strategies that change the environment to reduce the opportunities of committing particular offenses. The best opportunity-blocking strategy for drunk driving involves fixing the defendant's vehicle so that it cannot be started until he blows alcohol-free breath into a tube affixed to the vehicle. Such equipment is now available, and several jurisdictions have implemented experimental programs. Other opportunity-blocking strategies include the twenty-one-year-old drinking age and a spate of new laws and regulations on bars, taverns, and package-goods stores.
The anti-drunk driving movement has spawned a large number of educational strategies. These include public-service announcements on radio and television and educational materials for primary and secondary schools. The effects of such programs are very difficult to evaluate. Rehabilitation strategies for drunk drivers are closely linked to the matrix of community alcoholism and alcohol-abuse services. Drunk drivers are regularly screened for alcohol problems, and those who are identified as abusers are typically channeled into treatment through a probationary sentence.
(SEE ALSO: ; Addiction: Concepts and Definitions; Distilled Spirits Council; Driving, Alcohol, and Drugs; Minimum Drinking Age Laws; ; Psychomotor Effects of Alcohol and Drugs; Social Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse)
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JACOBS, J. B. (1989). Drunk Driving: An American dilemma. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
LABELL, A. (1992). John Barleycorn must pay: Compensating the victims of drinking drivers. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
MOORE, H., & GERSTEIN, D. (EDS.) (1981). Alcohol and public policy: Beyond the shadow of prohibition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
ROSS, H. L. (1992). Confronting Drunk Driving. New Haven: Yale University Press.
ROSS, H. L. (1982). Deterring the drinking driver: Legal policy and social control. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
JAMES B. JACOBS