Recently, some prosecutors, in efforts to crack down on drunk driving, are pushing for murder convictions. This is happening in the case of really blatant disregard on the part of the drunk drivers — people with multiple DUIs getting smashed, going out, and killing.
In watching coverage of this trend, over and over again I heard it said that the killer’s sin was “getting behind the wheel when drunk.” And that is in fact what we punish with DUI laws. Because so many people have done it (without killing anybody) there is surprising sympathy for the drunk drivers — there but for the grace of god go I.
But is that the right sin? That decision is always made once the person has impaired judgement. Something to me seems wrong about punishing a decision made when one has lost the ability to make good decisions. While I don’t drink, and have no sympathy for the actions of drunks, I think the real transgression comes much earlier.
The real transgression is allowing yourself to get impaired in circumstances where you would then be sufficiently likely to make deadly wrong decisions. A simple example of this would be having enough alcohol to move from sober to drunk when you have your car with you and plan to drive home. Of course, many people in that situation will do the right thing, and still be clear enough to know they should get a cab home, and then come back to pick up their car later. But of course, many don’t. And worse, there is often an incentive not to — such as paying for two taxi fares, and dealing with the car’s location becoming a no-parking zone in the morning.
I believe people should be punished for risky decisions they make while sober, more so than ones they make while drunk. It should be expected that people will make poor decisions and take unacceptable risks when drunk. That is what impairment means. It is the decisions they make when sober, when they know right from wrong, that the law should punish.
Now let me describe how this might work in theory, and then discuss the harder question of making it work in practice.
The simplest way to behave well is to never take your car to go drinking. That car parked outside is too much temptation once you are drunk. And this is what the designated driver concept is about. To get more specific, you must not take the drinks that make you impaired without first, while still not so impaired, making plans to get home so you have no temptation to drive your car. This can include arranging a ride with a sober person, pre-contracting with a taxi company for later pickup, or putting your car keys into escrow.
Car key escrow, for example, would involve giving the keys to a friend or the bartender, who will not return them to you until you are sober. A high-tech version might be a simple lockbox. You can put your keys in the lockbox (provided by a responsible bar) and can only get them out by blowing into the box with alcohol below the limit. The act of escrow, taken while sober, makes you legal. The act of drinking beyond your limit without making alternate plans is the immoral act. Having any recorded plan for getting home — cab, designated driver, transit ticket, keys in escrow — is enough to be acting morally.
Now how to enforce this? Well, we can’t really have police coming into bars, and asking all patrons who are beyond the limit to prove they made alternate plans. Police could check inebriated people leaving bars, but don’t typically have the time for this. If this sort of rule is to be enforced, it would have to be through legal liability on those who serve alcohol (bars, party hosts) to assure none of their guests go beyond the limit without plans, or at least the easy ability to make plans. (Cheap key lockboxes might help in this area.)
And of course, anybody who did drive drunk would be guilty since they obviously didn’t make adequate plans. This approach would simply expand the culpable act to the broader situation of having deliberately (while sober) put yourself in a situation where this has a real chance of taking place.
There are problems of course. Often “guests” come to parties uninvited and get drunk. We’ve all had a fairly drunk person at a party we barely know. Or we may not know the drinking habits of the friends we do invite. Bartenders deal with people arriving who already got sauced at another bar and just have the last few drinks before they drive in the 2nd bar. We want people to act responsibly, not have to go overboard and be paranoid about each guest. Ideally we want the full weight of the law to fall on the sober person who got drunk while his or her car was outside.
One unconnected option might make sense. Parking laws might be changed to let you get out of certain kinds of parking tickets if you can show proof you took an alternate way home because you are drunk. Taxi drivers who take drunks home could issue such a dated receipt. Friends could testify under oath that they drove you home because you were drunk. This might make people more willing to leave cars behind in certain areas. It would have to be clear what those areas were (for example, parking that was free at night but becomes metered or prohibited at 7am) so that the parking does not become a problem. Still the extra parked cars are a better thing to have than cars with drunks behind the wheel.