Dirty DUI Secrets

First of all, thanks to Rob at the 26th St. Bar Association for taking the bait and starting a series of posts about Illinois DUI law.

There’s been a lot about DUI in the blawgosphere lately, with lawyer/philosopher Mark Bennett explaining why DUI is a victimless crime—because the law does not require a victim to convict someone of a crime.

(Sigh. These  guys are all calling it DWI. Driving While—, Driving Under—, same thing.)

Then Shawn Matlock raising the stakes by explaining that it shouldn’t be a crime at all. What I think he means is that when someone gets a DUI, nearly all the legal action is about suspending their license and taking their money. Why not just finish the process and remove the criminal aspect completely?

Finally (so far) Scott Greenfield checks in to disagree, saying that it’s dangerous and therefore a proper crime.

For the record, I agree. I think DUI should be a crime. I’d rather they eliminated all the administrative piling on, especially the I-can’t-believe-it’s-constitutional administrative license suspension.

Now it’s my turn: Drunk driving isn’t as dangerous as they’d like you to believe.

In 2006 according to numbers provided by MADD, 17,602 people died in alcohol-related crashes. You might think that means that a drunk drivers killed 17,602 people, but the NHTSA study from which they apparently pulled that number counts as alcohol-related any crash “involving at least one driver, pedestrian, or pedalcyclist with a BAC of .01 or above.” In other words, for it to count as alcohol-related, the drinker doesn’t have to be drunk or driving.

A little further down, the NHTSA report gives the number of fatalites in accidents where a driver was over the legal limit as 8615, or about half the number MADD uses. And even this number is probably high, because it includes accidents where the drunk driver was not at fault.

MADD also says that a 2002 survey indicated that Americans took 159 million alcohol-impaired driving trips. If only 8615 of them ended in DUI fatalities, that means that alcohol-impaired driving has a 1 in 18,000 chance of a fatality.

Make no mistake, that’s very high, but it doesn’t mean that every drunk who hits the road is the moral equivalent of a murder waiting happen. In order to have a 50/50 chance of killing someone, you’d have to make 12,000 impaired trips—driving home drunk from the bar every night for 35 years.

It might not even be that bad. Here’s the real twist: If you actually drive drunk a lot, the chances of an accident (on a per-trip basis) will go down. That’s because if you drive drunk a lot…you’re going to get good at it.

I’m not talking about being so rip-roaring drunk that you pass out or lose memories—you’re pretty much a write-off then—but if you’re just a little drunk, you can get used to it.

The psychology professor who explained this to me said that a lot of the impairment of mild drunkenness comes not from drunkenness per se, but from the unfamiliarity of performing certain tasks while drunk. The first few times you tried to drive a car, you weren’t very good at it. Well, the first few times you try to drive drunk, you won’t be very good at that either. But in both cases, you get better with practice.

(In theory, it ought to work in reverse too. If you learn to do something tricky—juggling, say—while you’re drunk, you will roll back down the learning curve if you try to do the same thing sober.)

That’s not to say that drunk driving is a safe thing to do. Drunk drivers are very poor at handling unexpected developments. If you regularly drink at a bar a few miles from your house—especially in a rural area—-you could probably learn to drive home safely every night without sideswiping cars or striking pedestrians. But if something changes that forces you off of your regular route, you could screw up real bad.

So, don’t drive drunk, and don’t let friends drive drunk. But if you or your friend happen to drive drunk one night, don’t sweat it too much.

Leave a reply