What is the moment of sin in drunk driving?

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.


I disagree that the sin in question is "getting behind the wheel when drunk." I think prosecutors are going after precisely the sin you suggest: Planning to get drunk without a plan for getting home. Maybe they need to frame the argument more clearly.

I'd like to see Kathleen Rice on the courthouse steps saying to TV reporters, "If you plan to get drunk without a plan to keep yourself from driving, you're going to jail."

Sure, not everyone who fails to plan head gets caught. But more people will plan ahead as they hear about successful prosecutions. I think that's more likely to be successful than the new laws or new gadgets you suggest.

And I think that's what the prosecutors are hoping will happen.

Well, that's not the law. The law today is driving under the influence. The prosecutors are trying to bump it to murder by bringing in the recklessness with which the people got drunk when they would be driving, and showing a pattern of it. However, I think we should really name what it is that we are punishing, and it should be an act you commit while sober.

The government and bar owners should also be responsible for drunk drivers in-that they allow parking lots which tempt you to drive to and from a bar, instead of being shuttled or dropped off and picked up. The bar owners should only be allowed to serve what is under the legal limit per person if parking lots remain being responsible for the people they got drunk and let drive home.

Very intriguing. Perhaps the prosecutors should be more explicit with the notion that they will come down harder on DUIs that *don't* have a plan to get home. Although, I wonder how they would feel about me letting my 14 year old son drive instead? :-)

You did miss a golden opportunity to promote your other dream: RoboCars! In that world DUI would be obsolete!

I can see the conversation now with my great-grandchildren. "What!?! Drivers were arrested for drinking beer and driving *and* you had to stop for...what did you call it?...a red light? Why was it red, GrandPa?"


But indeed, robocars are a solution to this. One thing I probably should write about is that even whistlecars (which move too slowly for humans to tolerate and may not be rated to carry humans at all) might offer solutions as well. Whistlecar tech could at least get your car home without you, and possibly take you home (very slowly, and asleep) if that's permitted. On the other hand, whistlecar tech will probably reduce the number of human driven taxis that can take people home when their car is going on its own.

Drunk driving is responsible for a large fraction of accidents. It's one of the ways it is easy for Robocars to not make the mistakes humans do (inattention and drunk driving) though of course machines will have their own sources of error which must be eliminated.

A big problem with DUI in the U.S. is that the BAC limit is too high. The rest of the developed world has adopted .02, while we still have .08 (for those over 21). The higher limit codifies that some level of impairment is okay - as long as one isn't "too drunk" then it's okay to drive after drinking. But of course, "too drunk" is rather impossible for an impaired person to judge for themselves. It's even impossible for a third party to reliably judge the BAC of someone who isn't way over the limit. An easier standard is "any alcohol, don't drive, at all". While it can be hard to tell without a machine if one has had "too much", it's very easy to tell if one has had any. I see this in social settings all the time - people plan to drink a little, but not "too much to drive", but then they don't stop soon enough. I heard it constantly when a co-worker got a DUI after "only one glass of wine" (which was BS, BTW - he didn't get to .08 on one glass of wine).

We have reached a point of diminished returns on increasing the punishment for DUI. To get any further we'll need a cultural and legal shift away from "too drunk to drive" (0.08), towards "any alcohol makes driving illegal and wrong". I don't understand why MAD and other advocacy groups have not worked on changing this.

Living in the "rest of the world" as you put it, the term "too drunk to drive" sounds very strange to me.
Here we have a .02% limit, an it works great. This has, as you predict, made an awareness change in to "any alcohol makes driving illegal and wrong".

This will not prevent all DUI, but it will make it easier to keep within the limit (because you don't drive if you've had alcohol).
My 2 cents..

.08 is not standard for the entire US. Don't fool your self. Arizona implemented DUI laws that make it illegal to drive when you are impaired to the slightest extent. Felony charges have been filed and prosecuted successfully for repeat offenders who have had and could prove that they had one drink. So things are changing...

I don't believe that people have impaired judgement when drunk. Not the kind of judgement that decides whether you should drive or not at least. I have been so drunk I couldn't stand up without falling over. But I definitely knew enough not to drive in that state.

What you are saying is that some people do have the judgment to know not to drive when drunk. But obviously there are many people who don't. Now this is a valid point -- such a change in the rules would perhaps penalize the people who always excercise good judgment on whether to drive when they are drunk. But I bet those people also know to plan another way home before they get too smashed, knowing it would be foolish to get smashed with your car as the only way home.

Or are you suggesting that all people are not impaired with respect to that decision, and the ones who do it anyway are just idiots? I've seen people try to do it when their friends are telling them, "you are too drunk to drive." That's why they had the "friends don't let friends..." campaigns.

Driving somewhere, getting drunk, then driving home does not necessarily entail driving or intending to drive while intoxicated. While many people do get drunk, the vast majority of them sober up, largely due to hard work on the part of their livers. If you have half a bottle of wine with a meal that lasts two to three hours, odds are you will be sober enough to drive at the end of the meal. Of course, it depends on the strength of the wine, when you started drinking, and whether you finished dessert with a snifter of cognac. You could actually get quite plastered at dinner, go to a movie or show, and by the end of the production be quite sober.

I'd concentrate on the problem, driving when unable to properly control one's vehicle.

As for the 0.8% rule, I'd be very curious to discover just how many accidents involved people with blood alcohol levels between 0.8% and 1.0%. My guess is that the new blood alcohol limits were more about American puritanism than the actual dangers of a mind altering drug.

In some jurisdictions, one can be convicted of DWI even if one is
in the vehicle while it is parked and the engine is off. And
even if the key is not in the ignition. And even if one is in
the back seat, sleeping it off. It HAS happened.

I agree that if the people were truly interested in eliminating
drunk driving, then there would be a push for the acceptable BAC
to be 0%. There was a reduction from 0.1% to 0.08% some years
ago, but nothing since. In the USA at least, I think further
reduction would be highly unpopular, and anyone proposing it
realizes that they are likely to be caught in that net as well.

But more importantly, I think there is simply too much money to
be made for anyone involved to support serious proposals to
eliminate all DWI. Police departments, courts, lawyers, and
treatment facilities -- all stand to make hundreds, if not
thousands of dollars on each DWI conviction. And if the poor
fool actually has an accident, then the book is thrown at them
and these other entities get a really big payday.

this does not seem that complicated to me. Plenty of smart people drive drunk (for those who define anybody who drives drunk as dumb, save it...i'll find a person who can crush you on Jeopardy and drive drunk). As Sam Kinnison said, "we need to get our cars home". So, you go out to happy hour, or a party, or a bar, and have a few drinks and drive home. why? becuase you've done it 1000 times before without a problem. Why else? you don't think you are impaired (but most likely you are).

Look, this is all so silly. Bars have "happy hour" and that's legal. our society promotes drinking through acceptance and advertisements. Then we have these strong legal consequences for getting caught, but it's really hard to get caught. If you lived in a metropolitan city (NYC, Chicago, etc.) or overseas in most cities you can take a cab home for the price of a couple drinks. But in 80% of the U.S. (like here in San Diego) it's going to be $75 for that cab. and there is no alternative. When you go to a bar in southern california you realize that like 90% of the people in the bar are going to drive home impaired. Maybe only .05% or less, but clearly impaired. Those two cop cars watching the bar will only get a part of the 0.10% of the licensed drivers that get a dui.

That's why people drive drunk. Becuase:

1. they can
2. the chance of getting caught is low
3. the need to get their car home
4. there is no alternative that's affordable

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