Drink Driving: Is alcohol to blame?

by on 22 August, 2011


Dom Vasta pens a controversial post arguing that over-reliance on breath-tests ultimately makes everyone worse off:

There has been a lot of talk of reducing the legal blood alcohol level for driving from its current position at .05% to .02%. Many are for the move and many are against it. Proponents say that a lower limit will result in fewer road fatalities claiming the majority of fatal crashes occur under the .05 limit. What they fail to mention is alcohol is not the only factor involved in a crash, yet it remains the most commonly attacked one, both legally and in the media. The reason that the majority of crashes occur when the driver is under the .05 limit is because the majority of people driving haven’t been drinking. Let’s compare two common scenarios: the first is a man, who has been at the pub and has had a few beers, he’s not sure if he’s over or under the limit. The other, a man driving home from a trip, he’s been driving for hours and hasn’t had much sleep. Both these men are impaired; it is obvious from their manner of driving, both are putting other motorists in danger, the difference between them is: one is liable to be disqualified from driving, receive huge fines and even face jail time, even if he does no harm. Why do we subject a drunk driver to this and not a tired driver?

The technology of a breathalyzer has allowed us to measure blood alcohol content or BAC. Science has given us a “magic number” for BAC which translates to law as, “If a person is above .05BAC they are unfit to drive and everyone below is as good as sober unless they have red or green P’s stuck to their car.” While almost everyone agrees that this is not an ideal solution, most agree it’s better than nothing. But is it really?

If we approach this from a cost-benefit point of view, huge amounts of money are spent on breathalyzers and RBTs all in the hopes of catching drink drivers before they do harm, though the cost is mitigated via the fines imposed, it still uses up a huge amount of police resources, backs up traffic and inconveniences motorists that are not drunk. But the basis that the potential harm will be prevented by RBTs relies on the assumption that, not only would the drivers crash on their journey, but furthermore that their crash would occur after the point at which they were breath tested, So that we arrive at the fallacy that the arrest of a drunk driver somehow saves lives. The truth is: firstly, that most drunk drivers would have made it home without incident; secondly, the police resources used for RBTs could be better used on highway patrol cars catching motorists that are driving dangerously, and are not just impaired and thirdly, that smoother flowing traffic, as a result of motorists not randomly being pulled over, would result in a safer, more efficient journey for everyone on the road.

Another factor that most of those who call for zero tolerance on intoxicated driving fail to take into account is drivers who believe they are impaired will drive more carefully and take fewer risks to compensate for their lack of sobriety or if they believe they are significantly impaired, whether they are drunk, tired or high, many will refuse to drive at all. While road fatalities have been reduced in past years, it is unlikely that stiffer penalties on drink driving or tougher enforcement of the .05BAC limit have caused this. The numerous gory advertising campaigns showing motorists the consequences of driving whilst impaired should be a much more effective way to prevent drink driving, as few drivers want to end up as a bloody splatter wrapped around a telegraph pole.  Yet the “zero tolerance” crowd somehow believes that motorists would knowingly put themselves and others at a much higher risk of death or serious injury unless they threaten them with loss of license and fines. The entire motive for a set of penalties for intoxicated driving comes down to the premise that people value their money and their ability to drive more than their lives and the lives of others on the road. But these penalties are actually shifting motorist’s attitudes that way; many people that drink and drive have the primary objective of “not getting caught”, rather than the objective of “not crashing and dying”.

One thing does remain clear, driving whilst impaired, for any reason, is dangerous, no questions about it. But, should we let a little device that reads out a number tell us whether we’re too impaired to drive? Or should we rely on our own instincts and the instincts of those around us to decide whether it’s worth the risk?

 Dom Vasta is a "freedom loving student" from Brisbane, Australia, who is currently studying Engineering and Science at the University of Queensland. He supports liberalization of drug and gun laws and the privatization of nearly every aspect of government. This is an unedited entry into our $750 for 750 words contest for aspiring young writers. 

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