Liquor in the Front

Five years ago, Washington lowered the federal blood-alcohol limit for drivers to .08. Since then, there's also been an increase in the number of sobriety checkpoints, those Fourth Amendment-shredding roadblocks that delay every driver so the cops can round up some tipplers. "Alcohol industry advocates and civil libertarians made two predictions after .08 and roadblocks went national," Radley Balko writes in Tech Central Station:

(1) Arrests would go up, triggering new outrages and calls for even more stringent laws...

(2) Highways would get less safe, as cops, courts, and jail cells that could be used to pursue actual drunken drivers would instead be used to apprehend social drinkers.

We've certainly seen plenty of point one -- state legislatures are falling all over themselves to pass extra-constitutional policies aimed at "cracking down" on impaired driving.

Unfortunately, point two is proving correct, too.

To find out how and why, read the full article here.

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  • fyodor||

    The "alcohol-related" figure includes all accidents where alcohol is in any way involved, including for example, an accident in which a sober driver strikes a drunk pedestrian. The Los Angeles Times concluded a few years ago that the number of cases in which a sober person was killed by a drunk driver is about one-fourth of the figure put out each year by NHTSA.

    I'd read about this in Modern Drunkard Magazine (moderndrunkardmagazine.com), but I thought they might be biased! :-)

  • ||

    For anyone who has ever heard the hysterical radio ads that cops put out just before a major holliday telling everyone about these roadblocks, the funniest thing has got to be the way they think we actually believe them when they say "we care", or "we don't like making arrests but we will", and all the rest of their bullshit. I mean really - are there actually folks out there who believe they're after anything more than your money? Are there really people stupid enough that, after they've had any sort of contact with a cop (something respectable citizens are beginning to avoid at all costs), believe that their safety figures for a flying fuck in a cop's priorities? Plenty has been written about this already, but the really exasperating thing about this shit is not just the abuse. It's the fact that every citizen is assumed to have the IQ of a carrot (ok, or an average cop).

  • ||

    From the article:
    When President Clinton signed a law in 2000 that lowered the federal blood-alcohol limit for drivers to .08, opponents pointed out that the effect of such a law would be to tie up law enforcement resources going after motorists between .08 and .10, motorists who studies show are no more impaired than someone talking on a cell phone, or who has kids in the back seat.

    According to this study, Psychoactive substance use and the risk of motor vehicle accidents (PDF), if alcohol under 0.5 is defined as having baseline risk (1.00), alcohol 0.5-0.79 has risk 5.46 and >0.8 risk of 15.5. Safe to assume that 0.8-1.0 carries risk 6.0.

  • ||

    I'll have to swim against the stream here. While I'm no fan of checkpoints, I seems clear to me that impaired driving of any sort is inherently dangerous to those sharing the roads. At the very least, DUIs should be treated as reckless endangerment.

    As for the supposed connection between increased checkpoints and increased fatalities, there doesn't seem to be any evidence for that statement other than speculation. Correleation does not equal causation.

    Announcing the checkpoints is stupid, as are those condescending radio commercials.

  • ||

    My impression from news accounts is that when some horible accident occurs where a driver had been drinking, odds are high that the offending driver was not only legally intoxicated, but was way over the limit, and usually a repeat offender. I regularly read about DUI-convicted drunks driving while their licenses are suspended or revoked, and can't understand why those for whom the mere whisper of the evil molecule anywhere near a car don't agitate for jailing these guys. A sliding scale of penalties based on how drunk you are when driving would have been a better idea than the .08 standard.

    I'd prefer a system that penalized bad behavior behind the wheel, with the presence of alcohol as a sentencing intensifier.

    Kevin

  • ||

    Radley Balko writes:

    Clearly, we're allocating limited law enforcement resources toward the wrong pool of offenders.

    I'm not clear on precisely what is being done incorrectly here. How does one "target" the very drunk? Wouldn't checkpoints get them as well?

    (I'm not being flip here; I'm just trying to understand the mechanism.)

  • Radley Balko||

    alkali --

    Checkpoints are highly-publicized, and generally positioned on well-trafficked roads. They're also usually in the same places. Hard, regular drinkers know how to avoid them. We're better off freeing cops from manning checkpoints, and letting them patrol the roads for the people who pose an actual threat.

    Number 6 --

    My point is that because law enforcement resources are limited, we're better off directing them at those who pose the gravest danger to road safety. Those at .08 to .10 pose a very minimal risk. Sleep-deprived drivers are a greater risk. It's simply not worth the expenditure, not to mention the damage checkpoints, breath tests, and other "get tough" laws do to the Bill of Rights.

  • ||

    Conceivably, but checkpoints also serve to harass people who've done nothing, and slap a presumption of guilt on the uncooperative.

    As a guy who's been stopped at them while sober, I'm always suspicious that I will get locked up anyway. On those occasions where I've had a drink or two over a few hours, I get panicked.

    I may have a biased perspective based on an incident some years back where I was searched, berated as a liar for having a nailclip in my pocket and not disclosing it as a weapon, and repeatedly told that it would be easier on me if I simply told the officer where the drugs were. There were no drugs and the suspicious behavior that justified the interrogation. The driver pulled over so I could relieve myself.

  • ||

    The problem with checkpoints is that they don't target dangerous driving. Checkpoints declare that *alcohol* is the problem. Alcohol isn't the problem; driving erratically while drunk is the problem.

    It's an example of how well-intentioned policy can shift over time to something unsavory. 'Stop people from driving dangerously while drunk' is a good goal. 'Stop people from driving after drinking', less so, because it presumes that drinking is identical to driving dangerously. It's easy to miss the distinction because an impairing level of alcohol is reached so quickly.

    Or, to put it in Constitutional terms: unless I'm driving erratically, there's no probable cause to believe I am drunk. 'Being on the road when there's a checkpoint' is insufficient probable cause. If I drive home safely and don't do anything erratic or dangerous, does it matter if my BAC is 0.08? If I drive like an idiot, is that ok if I pass the checkpoint with a 0.03 BAC?

  • ||

    anondamide,

    Looking at just the abstract of the study you link shows that those relative risks you site for alcohol are actually for alcohol and single benzodiazapine use.

    "The risk for road trauma was increased for single use of benzodiazepines (adjusted OR 5.1 (95% Cl: 1.8�14.0)) and alcohol (blood
    alcohol concentrations of 0.50�0.79 g/l, adjusted OR 5.5 (95% Cl: 1.3�23.2) and ≥0.8 g/l, adjusted OR 15.5 (95% Cl: 7.1�33.9)). High
    relative risks were estimated for drivers using combinations of drugs (adjusted OR 6.1 (95% Cl: 2.6�14.1)) and those using a combination
    of drugs and alcohol (OR 112.2 (95% Cl: 14.1�892)). Increased risks, although not statistically significantly, were assessed for drivers
    using amphetamines, cocaine, or opiates. No increased risk for road trauma was found for drivers exposed to cannabis.
    The study concludes that drug use, especially alcohol, benzodiazepines and multiple drug use and drug�alcohol combinations, among
    vehicle drivers increases the risk for a road trauma accident requiring hospitalisation."

  • ||

    Radley Balko--

    While I tend to agree with you in principle, I also wonder what the alternative is. How does one target the very drunk? If the checkpoints were unannouced and random, the deterrence effect might be larger, although it is also true that some drunks would still get away.
    I seriously doubt that there is any way to remove every drunk from the road, so the alternative seems to be to make the perceived risk greater than the reward.

    As for the .08 standard-yes, that is a bit silly. However, pointing out that drivers with that BAC pose roughly the same danger as someone talking on a cell phone is not a terribly persuasive argument, given most people's experience with cell phone users on the road.

  • ||

    Isildur-You may not drive erratically, but your reaction times and judgement will be affected. When an emergency occurs, this matters, and dealing with the matter ex post facto doesn't help those left on the side of the road.

  • ||

    Poker in the rear.

  • ||

    kevrob wrote:
    My impression from news accounts is that when some horible accident occurs where a driver had been drinking, odds are high that the offending driver was not only legally intoxicated, but was way over the limit

    I have noticed exactly the same thing. And the tone of the article is always, "Look how drunk this guy was!" rather than, "Look how low the presumed drunk limit is."

    Just as an experiment, I entered '"blood alcohol" "legal limit"' into a Google News search.

    The first hit was Radley Balko's article. The next ten articles mentioned blood alcohol levels of: 0.15, 0.204, 0.187, 0.15, 0.14, 0.173, 0.29, 0.31, 0.087, 0.256. The 0.087, by the way, was not an automobile incident at all: it was a fatal work accident where the 0.087 fellow was directing a moving train and somehow got caught between the train and a wall.

  • fyodor||

    How does one target the very drunk?

    You send cops out on patrol with instructions to pull over cars that exhibit dangerous driving. If that lets some functional drunks off the hook, where's the harm?

  • ||

    I've also noticed that newspaper accounts of bad accidents seem to include an alcohol level of at least 0.2 which is so far above the limit that I really think the limit is designed to generate more fines and attorney fees.

  • ||

    Is there any particular connection between the lower BAC limit and the increase in roadblocks?

    I mean, we can oppose crime AND still protest certain law-enforcement methods for their own sake. If the roadblocks don't work, in addition to being a pain in the neck and 4th Amendment shredding (not that anyone cares about that over-rated amendment anymore), then the cops could easily devote their resources elsewhere while still busting if you get pulled over with a 0.09.

  • fyodor||

    trostky,

    I haven't studied the history of this issue as closely as some, but I suspect the reason for the linkage of which you're skeptical is that the lower BAC limit would be so difficult to enforce without roadblocks (because those at .09 so rarely drive dangerously) that it would give the appearance of not enforcing the law without their use. It's similar to why racial profiling was primarily used to catch drug law offenders, because how else do you catch a perpetrator whose perpetration was consensual with the perpetratee? Ie, there was no complainant, so you had to go after those who look like offenders or else you're not "doing your job." Just a guess....

  • ||

    Number 6,

    Isn't that also true if I'm:

    * Talking on a cell phone?
    * Tired after a long day at work?
    * Driving in the rain, or in the dark?
    * God forbid, driving in the snow?
    * Eating a cheeseburger?
    * Having an argument with my fiancee?

    In any of these cases, I am reacting more slowly, I am less able to deal with emergencies, and I am not giving the road my full attention.

    In all of these cases, I drive more slowly and carefully in order to compensate.

    Why is alcohol different? If I'm driving idiotically because I'm tired or arguing, I expect to be pulled over and busted. But I don't expect a 'stop-arguing-and-play-nice' checkpoint on the 520 onramp, nor do I expect 'cheeseburger patrols' stopping me in my neighborhood to ensure I'm not DWM (Driving While Munching).

  • ||

    Alas, the place where I work in the evenings is at a busy intersection with a state highway in a college town, so there are many times when I must be stopped and searched when I get off work. Usually, though, they let me go as I'm sifting through about 6 years' worth of proof-of-insurance trying to find the current slip.

  • ||

    Everybody want to blame Clinton for this. God, he only signed it into law.

  • fyodor||

    dealing with the matter ex post facto doesn't help those left on the side of the road.

    Ultimately, you can say that about almost anything. But setting aside that issue, we come back to ye olde sacrificing liberty for security, etc., etc. Look, driving is dangerous to begin with. There are many other ways to drive dangerously besides drinking. And there are ways to cope with slowed reaction time, such as giving yourself more room, which many professional drunks will do (believe it or not, most are sane enought to want to avoid accidents). Plus, as Radley points out, it takes resources to put up checkpoints, and since these resources come from taxes not from free market initiative, it is a zero-sum situation, meaning you take resources away from other enforcement procedures, such as patrolling for dangerous driving. You can't have both. Well, not without increasing taxes. So take your pick. I'll err on the side of liberty. It usually works best.

  • ||

    "then the cops could easily devote their resources elsewhere while still busting if you get pulled over with a 0.09"

    This goes back to the old issue of someone who, for example, gets pulled over for have a burnt-out taillight, and blows a .08 and goes to prison, even though they were driving perfectly.

    This also speaks to the question of "probability": how much more likely an accident is while engaged in certain activities. Driving after drinking, up to a certain level, is no more dangerous than other things that many people do all day long. Search for CD's. Talk on the phone. Etc. Yet, if I get pulled over, the cop can't conduct a scientific test to see whether I've been fiddling with the radio or eating a sandwich. But he can test for alcohol. So, then, this is no longer a matter of safety, but, rather, a matter of which danger-enhancement activities are the most easily testable. And that is simply absurd, that someone could go to prison for a .08, even if they were presenting no clear and present danger. There must be a level that is more reasonable, since, at .08, it is very easy to drive perfectly. Certainly, if you're driving perfectly, and you get pulled over for a burnt-out taillight, and the cop sees you swaying back and forth, about to pass out, then, surely, this is cause for action.

    Furthermore, I would be much more accepting of drunk driving laws if they were the least bit fair. But they are not, by any stretch of the imagination. If I cause an accident because I was, let's say, looking for a CD, then I might get a ticket and a fine. But if I cause an accident, and they find alcohol in my system, then I automatically go to prison, I am presumed guilty, I am forced to pay thousands upon thousands in court & legal fees, and probably will have my license suspended for a good long while. But, the results of the accident are the same. These "get tough" laws are patently unfair.

  • ||

    Or, to put it in Constitutional terms: unless I'm driving erratically, there's no probable cause to believe I am drunk. - isildur

    True, but the net can be cast wider if police pull over drivers who have committed some other infraction - failure to signal, changing two lanes at once - and then, if alcohol is detected, administering a field sobriety test.

    The Constitution doesn't mean much in traffic law. The states claim that "driving is a privilege" not a right, and merely refusing to provide self-incriminating evidence will get your license suspended, at the least.

    Kevin

  • ||

    Fyodor- [i]You send cops out on patrol with instructions to pull over cars that exhibit dangerous driving. If that lets some functional drunks off the hook, where's the harm?[/i]

    That would miss the point of MADD and other such groups whose goal who believe all drinking is an evil to be stamped out. The continual lowering of legal BAC levels at the behest of such pressure groups attests to the notion of that belief outweighing data.

  • ||

    Kevin,

    That's a flaw in the states' reasoning. That might have been true before cars were ubiquitous. Now, driving is nearly mandatory to be able to survive.

    I honestly wish I could walk everywhere. I'd be in better shape.

  • ||

    chthus: Looking at just the abstract of the study you link shows that those relative risks you site for alcohol are actually for alcohol and single benzodiazapine use.

    No. That's not the combination of both. It is single use benz.. and single use alcohol (at various levels). See the table within the study.

  • ||

    I am in favor of a BAC of 0.0 as it would force all the souses to move into high density areas - which we call cities - where they could walk to a bar.

    Then my fellow do-gooders will force the bars out - can't have bars where children live - and the serfs, err, citizens will live longer and pay more taxes to support the city planners.

    Crap, the the souses would just drive out into the suburbs to get a drink. Maybe if we then built commuter trains for drinkers ...

  • ||

    In California, with a prior DUI, you can be arrested for another DUI if are you caught drunk in the back seat of a car while your sober friend is driving.

    Reasonable laws that punish drunk driving have been coupled with intemperance.

  • ||

    I love how, since they lowered the limit to 0.08, the press routinely refers to 0.13 as "nearly twice the legal limit."

  • ||

    I don't think most people even realize how little you have to drink to be over the legal limit. They assume that it must be a lot and further assume that someone over the limit must be dangerous drunkard.

  • ||

    Drooling Richard,

    Doesn't that change the crime from "driving while intoxicated" to simply being intoxicated? or back door prohibition?

  • ||

    My point is that because law enforcement resources are limited, we're better off directing them at those who pose the gravest danger to road safety. Those at .08 to .10 pose a very minimal risk.

    False.

    Obviously, given the choice between arresting someone at .12 and .08, we choose the former. But you don't ignore vandalism in progress just because there might be burglary going on somewhere in another county.

    I am opposed to roadblocks. But people routinely fail to understand that .08 BAC is not a condition under which anyone should drive. And it is correct that we arrest and prosecute those who do so.

    The fact that someone can "make it home" from the bar after having four drinks in an hour is not a convincing argument for freeing these drivers from oversight.

    Finally, I like this scenario: would you drive your newborn, children, nieces across the city when you know you are drunk? No? Then why should you be on the road, endangering our safety?

  • ||

    "Doesn't that change the crime from "driving while intoxicated" to simply being intoxicated? or back door prohibition?"

    Yes.

  • ||

    green,

    "But people routinely fail to understand that .08 BAC is not a condition under which anyone should drive."

    Anyone? That's a rather broad statement. Just among my friends and acquaintances, I know people who, after only one drink, are stumbling drooling drunks -- and people who can drink far more than that and be no more than slightly tipsy.

    "And it is correct that we arrest and prosecute those who do so."

    Why is that? If they are not dangerous -- if they are not driving dangerously -- why is there a compelling state interest in arresting them? Or, to flip the question around: I assume that the danger posed by reckless driving while drunk is the reason to prohibit driving while drunk. If there is no observable reckless driving, why is it still important to arrest and prosecute the driver?

    "The fact that someone can "make it home" from the bar after having four drinks in an hour is not a convincing argument for freeing these drivers from oversight."

    Oversight, such as arresting those who drive dangerously regardless of the causes of their recklessness? Every day I see at least one person who is driving far too fast, changing lanes wildly, and failing to signal. The cause? They're in a BMW. They're far more dangerous than someone who's got a slight buzz, knows it, and drives well below the speed limit for the two miles between the bar and their house.

    "Finally, I like this scenario: would you drive your newborn, children, nieces across the city when you know you are drunk? No? Then why should you be on the road, endangering our safety?"

    Straw man. Or did someone suggest strapping infants to drunks, above, and I missed it? Sure, I'd drive a child somewhere while drunk. If there was an emergency. In fact, I'd be *more* likely to get behind the wheel even while tipsy if I was the only driver available to get a child to a hospital.

  • ||

    anondamide,

    From the results section describing the table in question.

    "The use of benzodiazepines (adjusted OR 5.1 (95% Cl: 1.8�14.0)) and alcohol was significantly associated with road accidents (Table 2)."

    Note the 'and' (as opposed to 'or' or 'and/or').

  • ||

    chthus, that 'and' does not reflect combination, given that odds from combination of drugs and alcohol is explicitly assessed as 112.00. Valium and alcohol together would fall under combination. In the table, benzodiazepines have a separate entry, combos with alcohol have a separate entry, and alcohol alone has a separate entry. That sentence is phrased as it is, because ONLY these two substances ALONE pose a significant risk. Cannabis alone does not have a significant risk, but in combination is pretty risky. If your intepretation was correct, these results would be pretty anamolous.

    Just in case you're not convinced, let some third party here give their opinion.

  • SteveInClearwater||

    STEVENCRANE, I must have misunderstood your post.

    You referenced a location you routinely drive through that results in 'being searched regularly'.

    If I read that correctly, Why are you consenting to a search?

    ......

    And with regard to this by someone above:

    Isn't that also true if I'm:

    * Talking on a cell phone?
    * Tired after a long day at work?
    * Driving in the rain, or in the dark?
    * God forbid, driving in the snow?
    * Eating a cheeseburger?
    * Having an argument with my fiancee?

    SinC: WHAT ABOUT THOSE DUMBASSES WITH FUCKING DOGS IN THEIR LAPS?!?!?!

    Ok...I feel better now.

    NOTHING, and nothing pisses me off more and I am confident that I am one of the most laid back drivers in America.

    Even the NumbNuts that throw trash out their window (from butts on up) don't rankle me like the FUCKING MORONS who drive with a GODDAMN DOG IN THEIR LAP.

    Ok, NOW I feel better...really.

    Little yapper bouncing up and down, rebounding back and forth between the driver's arms, chest, the steering wheel....Sticking his little yappie face out the window....

    "HOW CUTE" say some other drivers who with their words demonstrate their own absolute lack of a 3digit IQ.

    ME? I hope dude gets out on US 19, rolls it up to about 55 and then has someone (maybe an enraged guy in a black pickup? No...not m...I mean Him) Cut him off so sharply he has to hit the brakes and Little Fluffie becomes Little Windshield BloodBall.

    And with THAT, NOW I'm really, really done.

    I need a drink.

  • ||

    In California, with a prior DUI, you can be arrested for another DUI if are you caught drunk in the back seat of a car while your sober friend is driving.

    Does that apply if you're riding in a cab? A bus? In the back seat on a tandem bike?

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