Monday, 20 December 2010

Drinking and driving and progressive penalties

A new bill was proposed on Dec 1 to make repeat sentences for DUI offences progressively harsher. Besides the parts about driving boats, planes and trains, the bill concerns those who are "mildly" impaired:

Currently, a 24-hour suspension is imposed for drivers caught with a blood-alcohol concentration of .05 per cent or higher. The new law when passed would bring in a 24-hour for a first offence, 15 days for a second violation, 30 days for a third and 60 days for a fourth and subsequent violation. -fp-
I am all for progressive penalties like this. I think we should do more of it. If you have been reading this blog for a while you may remember a post I did last year about logarithmic sentencing. The premise being that punishment will be most effective if it gets progressively harsher with each additional offence. Not marginally harsher. Dramatically harsher. Make people think really hard about re-committing an offence. "Nobody should ever be the fifth or sixth victim of a criminal."

So I think this proposal is a good idea in principle, however it sort of misses the mark. Why are we going through all this effort to target people who are only slightly impaired, when the biggest risk is from people who are truly impaired?

I did some internet searches for news stories of incidences where people have died because of drunk drivers. It is not comprehensive or scientific, but nor did I cherry pick stories. I simply started at the first story and went down the list, noting the descriptions of the drivers:


"more than double the legal limit" -source-

"high-speed car crash" "her blood-alcohol level ranged between .128 and .153" "the car was travelling at 148 km/h .. on a stretch of road with an 80 km/h speed limit" -source-

"speeding north" "ran a red light" "blood-alcohol content was at least .159" -source-

"clearly highly intoxicated" -source-

"had two and a half times the legal level of alcohol in his body" -source-

"possibly during a drag race" "more than twice the legal limit of .08" -source-

"blood alcohol level was .137, or almost twice the legal limit, when he ran a red light" -source-

"a blood alcohol level of 0.139 and was travelling at 130km/h in an 80km/h zone" -source-

".189 blood alcohol content" "allegedly tore through downtown" -source-

... and my favourite:

"suffers from nerve condition Carcot-Maire-Tooth disease - got behind the wheel of his motability car despite having earlier been denied more alcohol in a pub because he was too drunk. The drug addict, who was almost three times the drink drive limit, then sped out of Montrose" -source-


You may have noticed that none of them say "blood alcohol level of 0.05 and driving the speed limit." They all were either highly intoxicated, or speeding, or both.

Here's what I think we should do: 0.08 should be the limit for a criminal DUI offence as it is currently. However the punishment for the offence should be much greater if:
a) you are at twice the legal limit or more.
b) speeding while impaired, or
c) texting or talking on a cell phone while impaired.

... because it's those combinations of risk factors that is really the biggest risk. Maybe you've been drinking, but if you're driving below the speed limit and stopping at the red lights and obeying all of the rules of the road it is unlikely that you will get in an accident. It is when you're so impaired that you cannot do those things, or when you amplify your impairment with other risk factors, that you really become a menace.

Your average person who has had a couple of beers after the game is not a particularly serious threat if he's paying attention to what he's doing on the road. And after all, we as a society tolerate a certain level of impairment. We have to, otherwise almost nobody would be allowed to drive. People drive when they are tired or stressed, when they have noisy kids in the back seat, when they're drinking a venti steamer from Starbucks, when they're wearing Crocs -- all of it legal and all of it impairing your ability to drive. We even allow people to drive while talking on a hands-free cell phone, which, as I've pointed out before, is just as dangerous as criminal drinking and driving (0.08+) according to countless studies (and the Myth Busters).

On occasion, we even encourage people to drive with serious impairments. Who hasn't seen a story on TV about some poor sap who lost both his arms and the left half of his brain in a tragic cooking accident, but can still lead a "normal" life by driving around in a specially modified van. We're supposed to feel good about this. I don't know about you, but I would rather share the road with an able-bodied person who has a b.a.c. of 0.06, than a mentally handicapped person driving a van with his mouth.

I started writing this almost three weeks ago and filed it away for a while, but finally decided to finish it off even though it will probably mean that I will never get friended by MADD on Facebook. I'm just trying to make the world a better place. Is that so wrong?


Gustav Nelson said...

I disagree, focusing on Blood Alcohol Content rather than actual wreckless driving doesn't help make the roads safer.

cherenkov said...

I agree with the point of that article, however it is highly unlikely that the government would ever get rid of b.a.c-based DUI, so if they're going to have DUI they should at least go after the most serious risks -- those with serious levels of impairment. Like the article said: "the average BAC in alcohol-related fatal accidents was 0.17" (and that avg includes accidents where drivers had very low bac where alcohol was likely not a factor)

It's unfortunate that our law makers are more concerned about the appearance of law rather than the effectiveness of law. The new cell phone law is no different.

Gustav Nelson said...

"It's unfortunate that our law makers are more concerned about the appearance of law rather than the effectiveness of law. The new cell phone law is no different"

Agreed. Do you think it's because they want the appearance of doing something, or is it genuinely because most lawmakers don't know how to make proper laws?

I think you should have at least included the sentiments of the article in your blog. Most people think it's common sense that if you reduce BAC and set up roadblocks, that will lead to reduced accidents and deaths.
I agree that it is unlikely that the laws will ever change, but going with the flow helps nothing.

cherenkov said...

I don't know. Maybe it's because we elect stupid people. All governments hire numerous researchers, and policy analysis and people with PhDs who are perfectly capable of reading studies and formulating intelligent policy, but somehow we end up with laws that at best are only moderately effective, and too often actually counter-productive. Sometimes at least it's just because of optics, or what requires the least amount of effort, or what they think will get them the most votes. I don't know..

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