Monday, August 10, 2009

America's unjust DUI laws

Though the number of unjust laws in this country is staggering, the Economist zeroed in on one area recently and took on our Draconian sex offender laws. That's right, The Economist. This isn't coming from High Times or Harper's or Hustler or even the "liberal" (as right-wingers see it) New York Times. This is from a magazine that opposed the provision of aid to the Irish during the Great Famine.

The magazine makes a great point that the system lumps all "sex" offenders together and makes it harder to differentiate who the truly dangerous deviants are.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least five states require registration for people who visit prostitutes, 29 require it for consensual sex between young teenagers and 32 require it for indecent exposure. Some prosecutors are now stretching the definition of “distributing child pornography” to include teens who text half-naked photos of themselves to their friends.

The Economist argues that watering down the sex offender registry makes it actually less effective in preventing child abuse. And the registry will most likely only continue to become further watered down because politicians will only continue to make the laws tougher and tougher in order to not appear soft on crime.

Few politicians dare to vote against such laws, [let alone propose to reduce the harsh penalties] because if they do, the attack ads practically write themselves.
This article seems to sum up about sex crimes what I have been thinking for a while now about drinking and driving laws.

It seems that our society insists on gravitating further and further back to the time of The Scarlet Letter. I wouldn't be surprised if sex offenders have to start identifying themselves with some sort of giant S on their clothing (we're almost there with their houses), nor would it shock me if people convicted of DUI soon have to brandish their car with some sort of giant warning. Many already have conspicuous breathalyzer boxes in the cars. Why not require giant pizza delivery-esque glowing signs that say "Hey, I like to drive drunk!"?

To be certain, driving drunk (and the key word is "drunk") and committing sex crimes are terrible acts that deserve to be punished. So many families have been permanently damaged by the stupid and often selfish acts of men and women who took their lives and the lives of other people on the road for granted when they tried to make it home after a serious bender.

I belive to correct this problem, it's not as simple as make the penalties increasingly harsher and make the threshold lower to prosecute. Laws of this type should be more about protecting the public and less about generating revenue for the state or allowing the politician to appear for photo ops and generate material for his reelection campaign TV ads.

As usual, the politicians have missed the mark on how to truly benefit the most people. According to MADD, "In 2002, 2.3% of Americans 18 and older surveyed reported alcohol-impaired driving, compared with only 2.1% in 1997." So as the penalties were getting stiffer and the threshold BAC has been reduced to where people can have only a couple drinks be over the limit, drunk driving has not really decreased at all. One study has suggested that lowering the BAC has had an ambiguous effect at best. The bottom line is that people are still getting behind the wheel and people are still dying from alcohol-related crashes. And if 2.3 percent is the number reported, then there are lots and lots of people who are also lying on their drinking and driving surveys.

So how many ways has the government tried to reduce the deadly effects of drunk driving on our society other than increasing the penalties and generating more revenue and political capital for campaign ads? If you ask me, the answer is zero unless you count meaningless public service announcements.

Aside from the most progressive of cities, how many places actually try to get cars off the road? To me, if you want to curb drunk driving, you have to get people to focus more on the driving part than the drinking part of the equation. Build more public transportation, encourage urban planning that allows for more walking or taxi rides, partially pay for people's taxi rides after midnight, instruct police officers to do more than lie in wait to nab drunk drivers and get them to proactively assist intoxicated people make it home without driving.

People who drink lots alcohol generate tremendous amounts of tax dollars for cities and help keep urban districts alive. It's hard to imagine a thriving city center where there were no bars or nightclubs. Drinkers deserve to be treated with more respect than gotcha policing and thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs and mandatory education. They also deserve more options than compete with the rest of the drunken hoards for an expensive taxi, find a sober driver to hang out in a loud and crowded bar all night, walk until dawn, or drive drunk.

I repeat, drunk driving is a terrible burden on public safety, but so is text messaging and talking on a cell phone while driving. Some studies have suggested texting is even more dangerous than drunk driving. But do you see texters losing their licenses for a year and having big black boxes installed in their cars to breathe in? When it comes to oncoming traffic, I would much rather see a responsible driver heading home after two or three drinks than somebody with his/her face in a Blackberry.

It's time to start examining our laws and what roles they really play in making society a better place*. Big problems need creative solutions, not the same old dog and pony shows that politicians have been using to get reelected for centuries. Let's stop treating streakers like child murderers and let's stop treating buzzed drivers like involuntary manslaughterists.

*I'll save drug laws for another blog post.


  1. I could not agree more. Great points, and I'm glad you encouraged preventative driving measures, rather than drinking, and included alternatives (in the third to last paragraph). Along with addressing the hyper-criminalization of DUI and mild sex offenders , marijuana prohibition is another taboo territory for politicians. In their no-brainer stance against illegal drugs, it's just too easy for them to include marijuana. With civil liberties issues like these, it's too easy for politicians to default to bigger issues (the economy, healthcare, etc.), so unfortunately I don't expect any serious consideration to shift to these special interests anytime soon. But that doesn't mean people should keep quiet.

  2. One of the big issues in SF in particular and I am certain in other cities as well(although I am not as familiar with other cities' budget issues) is that due to the fiscal crisis SF is forced to cut public transit. This makes it even harder for people who drink and drive to get home and leads to bad decisions from the onset of the night such as: "Aww man, I don't want to wait 1.5 hours for the bus, I'll just drive and take it easy." Unfortunately, often this person does not take it easy and then puts people in danger or does, has 3 beers and is still liable to get caught for drunk driving.

  3. I'm more dangerous with a new, really bad cold or the flu behind the wheel. NO ONE ever talks about all the other impairments that no one is going to moniter or shame me for. That was my big impairment wreck and I didn't even get a ticket. I should keep a thermometer in the car. Sounds silly but quite true and we won't even talk about the slow reflexes of aging