What Can Be Done to Reduce DUIs on a Societal Level—Without Resorting to Overly Punitive Measures? (Part 2)

Every 51 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies in an alcohol-related motor vehicle accident. Everyone—DUI defendants included!—agrees that we need to “do something” to dramatically reduce this number, but there’s no agreement on what that solution should be. Traditionally, our system has been heavy on the sticks, light on the carrots. We punish DUI drivers tremendously—by stripping them of driving privileges, fining them, sending them to jail, hiking their insurance rates, and beyond. How well is this “heavy on the punitive” system working? Well, take a look at the first sentence in this paragraph—one death every 51 minutes. If we want to do better—and we can—we need to look beyond the punitive and consider other ways to shore up our system, deter unwanted behavior, reward compliant behavior and solve the (challenging and often deeply psychologically rooted) issues that encourage unfortunate behavior behind the wheel.DUI-51-minutes-300x94

In a previous post, we looked at the current and future technologies that could address DUI deterrence. Now we’ll consider some of the other proposed solutions.

Lowering the BAC limit?

Ending alcohol and other drug impairment in transportation is among the top 10 items on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) 2017-2018 Most Wanted List. To justify this aggressive proposal, the NTSB shares sobering statistics:

• A 2016 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Report found that an estimated 14 percent of drivers drove with a blood alcohol concentration close to or over the legal limit in 2015.
• Alcohol-impaired fatalities (in which one driver had a BAC of .08 or greater) increased from 9,943 in 2014 to 10,265 in 2015.
• The number of highway deaths increased 7.2 percent between 2014 and 2015. The NHTSA said that impaired drivers played a significant role in that overall increase.

To address the alcohol issue, NTSB has been advocating for states to reduce the legal BAC for drivers from 0.08 to 0.05. According to its report, “We know that impairment begins well before a person’s BAC reaches 0.08 percent…In fact, by the time the BAC reaches that level, the risk of a fatal crash has more than doubled. That’s why we believe states should lower legal BAC levels to 0.05 percent—or even lower.”

NHTSA said that many drivers don’t even realize that alcohol impairment—degraded motor skills and increased crash risk—begins as soon as they’ve had their first drink.

However, Richard Berman, writing for the Washington Times, offered this stirring criticism:

“Lowering the legal limit to .05 will do almost nothing in the effort to reduce traffic fatalities. In fact, only 1 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities nationwide involve a driver that has a BAC between .05 and .08. And those “alcohol-related” fatalities are not to be confused with “alcohol-caused.”

In reality, it takes very little alcohol to achieve the proposed arrest limit of .05. For a 120-pound woman to be arrested, she could have had little more than a single drink. And a 150-pound man could be charged with drunk driving after two beers. Depending on state law, that would mean being subject to jail, loss of license, huge fines and much higher insurance premiums for years.

While this war on social drinkers rages on, drunk driving rates have plummeted. University research shows the widely accepted practice of talking on a hands-free cell phone impairs a driver as much as having a BAC of .08. Research also shows that texting and driving is many times more dangerous than driving at .05. Drowsy and drugged drivers? They get almost no attention despite being more dangerous than many moderate drinkers who drive home after an evening restaurant meal.”


Earlier this year, Utah became the first state to lower the blood alcohol content level for DUI from .08 to .05. The debate over the bill was contentious. Advocates argued that the approach would help prevent DUI-related deaths and injuries, and noted that the U.S. blood alcohol limits are much higher than those in most other industrialized countries. Opponents, however, said that the new bill would discourage tourism and put people at risk of an arrest for DUI even when they haven’t consumed much alcohol.

Will the new law make a difference? In a statement to FOX 13, the managing director of the American Beverage Institute Sarah Longwell pointed out that the lower limit won’t really catch the people who are causing the most problems. “Over 77 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Utah are caused by people with BACs of .15 and above, and the average BAC of someone in a fatal crash is .20—well over twice the legal limit. Utah legislators missed an opportunity today to target the hard-core drunk drivers who cause the vast majority of drunk driving fatalities and instead decided to criminalize perfectly responsible behavior.”

Utah residents themselves are divided on the bill. A survey conducted by UtahPolicy.com found that while 45 percent are in favor of the bill, 51 percent are not. But like it or not, beginning in December 2018 drivers in Utah will have to make sure that they have less alcohol to drink before they drive their vehicles. That’s when the new law goes into effect.

What’s ahead: This year, state lawmakers in Washington state and in Hawaii have introduced legislation reducing the permissible BAC to 0.05, but neither state has taken action as yet. It’s possible these state legislatures and others will wait and see if Utah’s new law actually has any impact on DUI-related accidents, fatalities and injuries before committing themselves to a similar reduction in the BAC.

Harsher penalties and better enforcement

Some anti-DUI advocates suggest that cracking down on offenders through harsher penalties—longer jail terms and steeper fines—would cut down on the number of DUI drivers. The problem is—again, as this blog and others have argued, again and again—no one is really sure whether more stringent consequences would actually deter DUI drivers.

There’s limited research on the subject. Researchers in British Columbia, Canada, did study the effect that harsher penalties for impaired driving (and speeding) had on reducing crashes related to drinking and driving. They looked at four years of data, from 2010, when the province’s more punitive laws went into effect, until 2014.

According to the University of British Columbia News, the researchers found that automobile crashes declined 21 per cent, crash-related hospital admissions dropped 8 per cent, and crash-related ambulance calls fell by 7.2 per cent during that time. Based on those statistics, the researchers estimated there were 84 fewer fatal crashes, 308 fewer hospital admissions and 2,553 fewer ambulance calls for road trauma each year.

The study’s lead author, Jeffrey Brubacher, said that “Our findings add to the growing evidence that the new laws, although controversial to some, were associated with marked improvements in road safety…We hope that other jurisdictions will follow B.C.’s lead in implementing similar laws designed to deter dangerous driving.”

But a study from the Research Society on Alcoholism found that it isn’t the harsher penalties that deterred DUI drivers; what kept them from driving under the influence was the perception that they had a good chance of being apprehended and charged. According to Science Daily, the study authors said that “individuals that reported a greater perceived chance of being pulled over for DWI corresponded to less-alcohol impaired driving on their part. Conversely, individual perceptions of DWI penalties were unrelated to their self-reports of current or future alcohol-impaired driving.”

The study authors suggested that increasing police patrols for DUI and/or increasing the number of DUI checkpoints might be most effective in reducing the incidence of DUI.

What’s ahead: Increasing penalties for people convicted of DUI might be a good way for lawmakers to claim they are doing something about the problem—to score “political points” as they say in the vernacular—but there’s not a lot of data available to show if such an approach actually works.

Increased police patrols and more sobriety checkpoints might be helpful, but they are expensive solutions for police departments already facing greater demands on their budgets.

Other possibilities

There are a myriad of other suggestions for reducing the number of DUI drivers on U.S. roadways. They include:

• Autonomous vehicles; a computer-driven car would make better decisions about braking, following distance, etc., than someone who is under the influence.
• Alcohol intervention programs and/or counseling in conjunction with penalties like license suspension. The CDC says that such strategies help change behavior and reduce alcohol-impaired crashes and injuries.
• Better zoning and public transportation. Writing at Grits For Breakfast blogger Scott Henson observes: “I’ve always believed that public policy contributes greatly to drunk driving rates. Zoning regulations prevent neighborhood bars and often isolate drinking establishments in districts where most people must leave their home and drive to get there. More importantly, they must drive to get home. (In “dry” jurisdictions, the problem is even worse.) Add to that a failure by most Texas’ cities [obviously, true for Los Angeles, too!] to invest in adequate public transit, and anyone who wants to drink at a bar is virtually required to either drive home or find a designated driver.”
• More emphasis on personal screening devices. A recent article in U.S. News and World Report said that the Colorado Department of Transportation is advocating for the use of personal and smartphone breathalyzers, so drivers can check their BAC before they get behind the wheel.
• Continued messaging about the dangers of DUI. There are always new drivers on the road, and older drivers who need to be reminded of the dangers of getting behind the wheel when they’re intoxicated. Messaging could include reminders about the ready availability of alternate transportation in many areas—taxi, Uber, Lyft, friends, etc.—when a person has had too much to drink to drive safely.

If fixing the DUI problem was easy, we would have adopted the solution a long time ago. At this point, it looks like we’ve collectively committed ourselves to this course of action: a combination of various prevention techniques—more enforcement of existing DUI laws—and greater use of technology like ignition interlock devices and even autonomous vehicles.

Lone voices in the wilderness though we may be, we prefer Scott Henson’s idea that “the solution to every social problem cannot be cops, courts, jails and prisons. Where non-punitive strategies can prevent crime and promote public safety, that should be the preferred approach.”


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