Drunk Driving: A Victimless Crime

by Charles Platt

I wonder if anyone else agrees that drunk driving is a victimless crime. A conviction merely affirms that a person was more likely than average to hit someone or something. Well, all kinds of people are more likely to do that, such as the elderly, or people who simply don’t have an aptitude for driving.

State laws used to recognize this, more or less, by allowing police to make a judgment call about impairment, based on their observations. But that wasn’t good enough for Candy Lightner, whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. In the wearying tradition of family members who want to make the death of a loved one seem more meaningful by inconveniencing everybody else, Lightner started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The name of this brilliant campaign guaranteed its success. Who could possibly disagree with Mothers (that most sacred category of human being) who wanted to protect their children from alcohol-crazed hit-and-run maniacs? Alas, it ended up criminalizing the people whom it was supposed to protect.

Young people themselves are the most likely to drink and drive. So, MADD’s answer was to stop them from drinking–even including the ones who didn’t own cars and didn’t have driver licenses. Of course the federal government lacked constitutional authority to enforce this, so it simply threatened to take away a percentage of highway finds if the states didn’t capitulate. Such coercion would be familiar to any mafia boss: “Nice little highway you have here. Be a shame if something happened to it. Maybe you should think about raising the legal drinking age to 21.” Thus young people who had been 18, 19, or 20 at the time suddenly had to stop drinking, or become criminals. Once they were 21 they could start drinking again.

Does anyone imagine that this actually worked? I have never yet met any teenagers who aren’t able to obtain alcohol if they want to. College presidents are aware of this, which may have been why more than 100 of them got together in 2008 and demanded that the legal drinking age be lowered. No doubt they were weary of trying to enforce a prohibition that is unenforceable. Of course, their plea was ignored.

Candy Lightner subsequently quit from MADD. Her demands for salary increases had been rejected, which may or may not have been a factor. In 1994 she became a spokesperson for the American Beverage Institute, a lobbying group which represents some liquor companies. She argued against a further tightening of the law regarding illegal levels of blood alcohol, stating that MADD had become “neo-prohibitionist.” Apparently even she realized that the juggernaut that she created had gotten out of hand.

Too late, Candy. Young people lost some more of their dwindling rights, and police departments gained a great new tool for raising revenue. Lives have been disrupted in the process, since people convicted of DUIs lose their licenses in many states, and this can be catastrophic for someone who lives alone in a rural area. Meanwhile, millions of teenagers have gained criminal convictions as a result of doing something that is legal for the majority of the population.

All this in the cause of preventing a crime that might happen.


55 Responses to Drunk Driving: A Victimless Crime

  1. Eric T. says:

    I wonder if anyone else agrees that drunk driving is a victimless crime…

    Probably some of the drivers. Not so much the dead victims and their families. I’m willing to bet they don’t see it as victimless.

    The problem with your piece is that you have painted with way too broad a brush. You have implied that because some people/laws go too far, that all are no good.

    • DMG says:

      So if the driver doesn’t kill anyone is it victimless? Not every person who drives drunk actually hits anything/one.

      • ron says:

        It’s amazing how many people (like you DMG) fail to address many of the strong points this article makes. By your logic, not every black man commits a felony (but is more likely to), not every elderly driver has an accident (but is more likely to), so thank god people like you, with no understanding of probability or experienced driving continue to swarm DUI forums, discussions, and “popular culture.” Like the author said, even Candy Lightner realized that the intention of MADD had lost its purpose. But alas bigots like you will jump on the first bandwagon in the name of morality. Now ask yourself DMG: what laws have you broken in the past year that didn’t result in countless fatalities?

    • Eric,

      You wrote:

      Probably some of the drivers. Not so much the dead victims and their families. I’m willing to bet they don’t see it as victimless.

      But drunk driving IS victimless. Crashing into someone is what causes the death. And I’m not just being pedantic. The fact is, driving with a .08 or .10 or even .15 BAC is not so dangerous that it demands the absurd penalties, seizures, roadblocks, and re-education camps you get sent to if you get caught doing it.

      MADD, just like any group of screaming harpies, have magnified the offense to attempt to minimize their pain from losing a loved one.

      I’m not saying that you ought to be able to get loaded and drive. But, the proportionality between the offense and the response should be restored. Every drunk driving arrest is not an averted death. We should stop treating it like one.

      Frankly, I think that we should LOWER the BAC limits, but make the penalties less absurd, meanwhile creating a mechanism for common sense to work its way into the process.

      I think that ANY blood alcohol at all ought to be DUI. But, if the limit is below .10, then you should get a ticket for a percentage of your income for the previous year for each 100th.

      However, once you have 7 years of driving experience, you should be able to apply for a progressively increasing “drunk driving permit.”

      After you have a license for 7 years, you can take a test to drive with .05 BAC. You go to a special course, drink to .05 BAC, and then drive around some cones. You then get a purple flashing light to put on your roof when driving “drunk,” and a sticker for your license that says “.05 legal.”

      When you are at .05 or below, you need to put the purple light on your roof, and you need to drive at 10 miles per hour under the speed limit. That way, anyone who fears for their life can pull over and let the drunk pass, and the cops can pull you over without wondering who is drunk and who isn’t.

      Then, after a couple of years with that permit, you can progressively raise your drunk driving license up to .12 or so.

      We could sell the purple lights for $2500 to raise money. The courses would be expensive too. All of this would raise the same revenue that the idiotic DUI penalties raise, without an attendant burden on the legal system.

      • Aaron says:

        The only problem with that, though, is there was a guy who proved to a court that eating certain flavors of icecream could flub a breathalyzer and come up positive. And then there is also cough medicine and shakes and some candies that use an alcohol based flavoring; I love your idea, and your point, I just think there needs to be a low limit. Like, anything below .01 should be ok.

      • arizonaplatt says:

        Actually Mark in my “ideal world” scenario each vehicle would have large alphanumeric screens, front and rear, displaying icons indicating the various forms of impairment of the driver. Other drivers could then take appropriate measures, and the police would only have to get involved in extreme cases.

        Really I think the fear of drunk drivers is partly due to lack of communication. We don’t know if they’re safe or not, and uncertainty is becoming less and less acceptable in the world.

  2. Alan says:

    Part 1: Is drunk driving a crime? Answer: Yes. (Driving while old, not so much. Look it up in the motor vehicle laws for your state.) Part 2: Is drunk driving victimless? Answer: No, it kills thousands of people per year. This was such an easy question to answer, I don’t know why you wasted so many words on it.

    • Clint says:

      Freeing slaves was a crime too. He’s not talking letter of the law here. Most people who drive over the legal limit do not hit anyone. In 2008, 11,773 died in drunk driving related crashes. That’s 226 a week. Divide by 50 and that’s 4.5 a week on avg per state.

      You can bet that every week, way more than 4.5 people drive drink in each state. The vast majority do not kill anybody. That is what he meant. Most of the time, like speeding, nobody gets hurt.

      I believe that was his point.

    • Victor says:

      Do we have statistics on how many accidents were caused by someone eating a sandwich or talking on a cell phone? Nope. Because they are not stigmatized like drunk driving is. But if we did, we would probably discover that there are many other distracting circumstances that lead to accidents as well. Additionally, speeding almost assuredly leads to many of the accident-related fatalities, but speeding doesn’t carry with it the penalties of drunk driving, even if there is a fatality involved.

      Now, like the OP, this is not to say that drunk driving is alright or that speeding should revoke your license, impound your car, and send you to jail, but rather that the prosecution of drunk driving like it is a crime is a bit ridiculous when you cannot be prosecuted for eating a sandwich while driving or reading the newspaper or texting or talking on a cell phone and they all cause accidents as well. This is a pre-crime arrest, the likes of which would be appalling in any other circumstance.

      See this brilliant article about punishing everyone for the failures of a few: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/jeremy_clarkson/article7052392.ece

      Further, to touch on the drinking age thing, I am employed at a college and see it regularly – college-age students binge drink, not so much because they’re in college, but because it is a forbidden fruit. When they get their hands on some alcohol, they go crazy, drinking to excess, often causing more harm, more danger to their lives and the lives of others resulting in the expenditure of many more taxpayer dollars in police, EMS, etc. to deal with the issue.

      If you look at Europe where the legal drinking age is much lower in most places, their rate of drunk driving accidents is far lower. In most European countries, the legal drinking age is 16 while the driving age is 18. This way, most people are accustomed to the concept of having some alcohol by the time they are licensed to drive and aren’t as likely to partake in the American college-style binge. Furthermore, since the driving age is higher than the drinking age, even if they do binge right after having the right to partake, they will not generally be on the road and therefore be less of a problem.

      It is madness, pure and simple, that someone can get drafted and go to war for this country at 18 but they cannot have a drink at a bar.

  3. jack1 says:

    Yeah and its a swing and a miss on your policy reasoning. They need to ban cell use and driving. Talk about that next.

    • Aaron says:

      They have in California, it didn’t do shit. Next question.

      • jeffrey morrell says:

        you are correct sir! cell phone bans have been proven to do nothing except increase revenues for PD’s. Just like red light cameras, which actually have been proven to increase accident rates.

  4. Marc says:

    Victimless crime? Not so much…

    But at the same time, the standard has become more than a little ridiculous. And maintaining the same standard (.08 in many states) regardless of time, place, etc. seems even more foolish.

    You get pulled over in a school zone at 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon? Ok, .08 it is. You’re being unneccesarily reckless.

    But at 11:30 on a Saturday night? Come on… Can’t we raise the limit to like a .10 or something, so everyone who had three beers at a wedding reception isn’t rolling the dice?

    However, we’re still talking about degrees of recklessness. I’m ok sharing the road late night on weekends with a large number of reasonably inebriated people… But if you drink yourself blind and then get behind the wheel, you ought to get arrested.

    • Victor says:

      There is a distinction here.

      Drunk driving and not hitting anyone/anything = victimless crime.
      There is no victim if you do not hit anyone/anything yet is a crime, so by definition, it is a victimless crime.

      Drunk driving and causing a fatal accident ≠ victimless crime.
      Obviously, if you cause a fatal accident, there are victims and therefore it is not a victimless crime.

      • Aaron says:

        Which is why we hit them with Vehicular Manslaughter. Driving drunk is just the olive in the martini, it isn’t what we focus on even when we’re focusing on it! How screwed up is that?

  5. Jim says:

    “Thus young people who had been 18, 19, or 20 at the time suddenly had to stop drinking, or become criminals. Once they were 21 they could start drinking again.”

    I’m not going to look this up (you should have, it’s your piece), but I’m pretty sure that people who were 18 and up at the time got grandfathered in. My driver’s ed teacher back in HS spoke of getting in just under the wire and being able to drink for 3 years while his friends couldn’t, so at least in Michigan this was presumably the case (assuming my teacher’s stories and my memory haven’t stretched the truth). At any rate, the situation was still obnoxious as three years passed and not a single new person became legally able to drink.

  6. Christopher says:

    I’m not really sure why it’s a Bad Thing(tm) to criminalize drunk driving. Your article doesn’t really provide any good reason to decriminalize it either. The research shows that it adds a nontrivial number of preventable fatalities each year. Hence this would be a reasonable area in which to target enforcement.

    As with anything, there stands room for improvement. Adding some overhead to the BAC laws in order to account for variation amongst individuals–1 standard deviation perhaps–would be reasonable and testable. Furthermore, as you pointed out, age plays a role in preventable driving fatalities. Encouraging States to adopt stricter educational standards and licensing requirements on drivers across the board is also likely to reduce the number of preventable fatalities on the road.

    But perhaps I’m biased; instead of getting a good night’s sleep I’ve got to wake up, gather the bodies, and drive these folks to the hospital. I can’t get paid to sleep with all of these drunks and old folks getting in MVCs!

    • Harry Mauron says:

      Letting 16 to 25 year olds drive at all adds far more preventable fatalities than DUI – why not outlaw that? Motocycles add a nontrivial number of preventable fatalities – why not outlaw them?

      It’s supposed to be a free country. If Marco wants to drive around drunk without hurting anyone, he should be as free to do so.

      • Christopher says:

        It would be quite the leap to assume Marco has the ability to choose between hurting someone while drunk driving or not. If he is truly drunk, he most likely does not have the ability to do that.

        In comparison, an unimpaired 16 to 25 year old certainly has the ability to make the determination whether or not to engage in risky behavior. The CDC data on motor vehicle fatalities shows that impaired driving adds more than just young age (12k vs 3.5k). However, I don’t disagree that age is certainly a large factor in preventable fatalities and should be addressed.

        A reduction in the rate of preventable fatalities was seen with the introduction of graduated drivers licenses and more rigorous driver education. It would make sense to pursue this further for all ages of drivers.

        • It would be awesome if we could mandate REAL driver’s education before you could get a license.

          Of course, that would probably result in there being 6 licensed drivers in all of Flori-duh.

  7. Harry Mauron says:

    How about a scheme where BAC is a kicker on other offenses, along with cell phone use, drug impairment (legal drugs, too), decrepitude, eating and other things that make people poor drivers?

    Cause an accident crossing the center line – moving violation with knuckle slap fine + civil liability. Accident crossing the centerline while drunk/high/txting/eating/etc. – big fine and loss of license.

    The reality is that the police like high BAC as a crime – it’s super easy to enforce and generates nice revenue without much cost.

  8. […] WAR ON ALCOHOL: Drunk Driving: A Victimless Crime « The Legal Satyricon Quite an interesting piece. It is true: Drunk driving is a victimless crime. There is only a victim when you get into a drunk accident. On average, 4.5 people are killed by drunk driving in each state, each week. You can bet that way more than 4.5 people drive drunk every week in every state. The vast majority do not result in fatalities. […]

  9. […] WAR ON ALCOHOL: Drunk Driving: A Victimless Crime « The Legal Satyricon Quite an interesting piece. It is true: Drunk driving is a victimless crime. There is only a victim when you get into a drunk accident. On average, 4.5 people are killed by drunk driving in each state, each week. You can bet that way more than 4.5 people drive drunk every week in every state. The vast majority do not result in fatalities. […]

  10. arizonaplatt says:

    If saving lives is really your concern, first you have to tell me how much a life is worth. If a single life has almost infinite value, we should retire all recreational motor vehicles and resume using bicycles and horses. No, wait, they’re dangerous too….

    You cannot legislate risk out of existence. Therefore, the position I return to is that it would be a better idea to trust people’s judgment more and legislate less. Long before the current laws against drunk driving, police had authority to pull someone over if his driving seemed to be impaired. And guess what, they still have that authority. It was only the hysteria spawned by a particularly maniacal special interest group that resulted in our current laws which set a level for blood alcohol that is so low, people who are driving quite competently may still lose their licenses for a year and even go to jail. This is wrong.

    Even the woman who started MADD ended up stating publicly that the whole thing had gotten out of hand.

  11. […] F*#ks Sake, hysteria, Legal Age, Legislation by Aaron The Satyricon has come out with a wonderful post on drunk driving, and what I feel to be a pertinent point on over-legislation. I’ve said my […]

  12. dave says:

    I agree that DUI/DWAI is a victimless crime. While reviewing DUI police reports at my internship, I noticed that a lot of moronic police officers would put “State of Colorado” under the “Victim” field on the police report forms. The ranters and ravers start screaming about the people that are killed by drunk drivers, and I don’t disagree that they are victims. But they are victims of vehicular manslaughter, not DUI.

  13. arizonaplatt says:

    Dave, the clarify of your thinking comes as almost a shock to the system in an online debate. I totally agree. Laws already exist, criminalizing driver errors that cause injury or damage. That’s where the “victim” enters the picture.

    I would add, however, that even in such cases, I am more concerned about restitution than punishment. Someone who is locked up is not in a good position to make restitution to victims or families.

  14. jeffrey morrell says:

    I’m with you, brother. Besides, texters are worse than drunks, correct? And nobody has a solution for that one (yet).
    A person killed by a drunk driver is a victim in the same way that one hit by 16 year old is a victim, yet there are no punishments for driving while 16. Hell, as a teenager I got off so many tickets it makes me sick to think about. Poor judgment, impulsivity, and slow reaction times usually cause accidents in both groups, but only one is illegal.

  15. arizonaplatt says:

    If cars were invented today, I doubt that most of us in the USA would be allowed to drive them. We’d probably have to hire “suitably qualified experts” i.e. chauffeurs. After all, a car is almost as dangerous as a small aircraft, depending which way you point it.

  16. Houston says:

    This subject is one that tortures my usual libertarian views. On one hand I am most certainly not a proponent of drivers who drink in excess and certainly not in cases where there is an identifiable victim. While this does not always involve deaths but can be much more ‘minimal’ for example over-judging distance resulting in minor traffic accident, or other relatively minor damages. Each of these situations should clearly be punishable offenses. Additionally the totally arbitrary ‘standards’ that presume impairment at a certain level should be eliminated. While one driver might well be ‘impaired’ at a .08 or .10 BAC, another might well have virtually no issues operating at that same level. And lets not forget the penalties involved in refusing to provide a blood, breath, or urine sample. Any individual with minimal exposure to the legal system will quickly realize how difficult it would be to argue that even though a BAC was above the standard-du-jure that they simply weren’t impaired and should not be convicted of the crime. If given the opportunity to implement changes to the system I would be very interested in decreasing significantly the penalties of a DUI where there is no ‘victim’ but increase them where the substance use was a factor in a case with an identifiable ‘victim’, perhaps reducing the harm to those who may have had a brief lapse in judgment while at the same time providing significant deterrent to cases involving victims.

  17. Sean F. says:

    Quick question:

    Can one be arrested for driving while tired?

    • Nope, and you can’t be arrested for driving while being a 90 year old jewish lady from Boca Raton either.

      • Sean F. says:

        Cool. Didn’t want to say something stupid.

        Anyway, having been both drink and tired (usually separately, but often simultaneously) I can pretty safely say that the two are almost identical in terms of physical coordination.

        For example, in both “piss drunk” and “dead tired” states, I can hardly move and my reaction time to any stimulus is greatly decreased. Why then can I be arrested for merely driving in one state but in the other an accident must occur?

    • Tim says:

      If you were to cause an accident and admit you were tired then you would be charged for careless. Dont say a word and its a crap shoot for a cop. There are more accidents causing death because of tired or other forms of careless action than impaired. Toss weather conditions in there. I consider that an impairment to most drivers than a BAC of .08 in canada you lose your license for 3 days if your caught with a BAC of .05. The fines get more harsh if caught 2nd or third time. more so if you are above .08

  18. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m already familiar (somewhat) with your penchant for crowd-baiting irreverence, I’d have to say you were being a bit insensitive. But since that would require a semblance of political correctness or its native son (i.e., pretending to be PC, although you are really a Mac person), I won’t say that.

    Instead I will simply agree that drunk driving is victimless in and of itself, and the penalties handed out are no deterrent. I know people who drove drunk hundreds of times and have never gotten into an accident or gotten pulled over. I also know guys who got 3 DUIs in quick succession and did time in jail for it. Sometimes it seems — especially harkening back to college days of yore — that whether you got pulled over for impaired driving was really a matter of fate. Virtually everyone (yes, everyone) has done it at least once, and many people have gotten away with it forever, and there is always the statistical probability that someone ran over a pedestrian the first time they drove drunk. Has to be true, statistically speaking.

    Putting aside silly rhetoric and hypothetical victimless status, we all can agree that drunkeness leads to poor driving, poor driving leads to accidents, accidents lead to death, and death (for most of us) is considered a not very good result of a night on the town. I don’t carry the drunk driving figures in my head because I’m not a proselytizer, but my recollection is that they are rather ugly. And my personal experience is that bad things happen to drunk people. Or they do bad things and then walk away uninjured after falling off a cliff, and wake up and can’t remember what happened.

    So, to answer your question with a bad line from a movie, “It’s complicated.”

  19. […] Legal Satyricon asks if drunk driving (sans collision/fatality) is a victimless crime?  (via the New York Personal Injury Law […]

  20. I agree that it is a victimless crime, but what else if people don’t obey it.

  21. Mr. Bali says:

    I don’t agree… :)

  22. I respectivly disagree. It is prevention.
    Without it, drivers and pedestrians lives are in jeopardy.

  23. […] a comment Go to comments In my first “Around the Mediverse” post, I linked to a post at Legal Satyricon that pointed out that driving under the influence of alcohol is a victimless crime, to the extent […]

  24. Fan says:

    I drive drunk all the time. It IS a victimless crime. I’m an expert at it now. I get lots of practice at doing it properly.

    There are many techniques you can employ to minimize the risk of being persecuted by the victimless crime enforcers in this case.

    I don’t feel ANY shame, why should I, I’ve never hurt anybody and my skills are always being honed so my risk of hurting anyone decreases with each time I do it.

    I’m an ‘old hand’ at driving drunk. I’m an adult, I own a vehicle, I paid for the roads, and I’m capable of operating it.

    The evidence? The proof is in the lack of damage I’ve ever done.

    Potentialities are none of your motherfucking business.

  25. john says:

    Just don’t drink and drive…

  26. Pete says:

    True, drink driving is a victimless crime. Comparing the drink driving-related death numbers to my, and your, and others’ experience as expressed in the comments here, it’s obviously a crime that goes unpunished in the vast majority of cases.

  27. MaMu1977 says:

    Drunk driving, victimless?

    Tell that to my poor T-boned car, AKA: the world’s largest, smokiest, smelliest, burnt-est paperweight. Tell that to my chest and feet, because neither one of them works right anymore (and are the main reason why I’ll be ending a military career 11 years early. Tell that to my uncle and aunt, who both lost their lives to drunk drivers (both drivers incurred a whopping 0 days of jail time and $1,000 in fines.) Tell that to my father who lost his best chance at becoming a SNCO by driving drunk, or my mother whose head was slammed through a windshield when she was hit by a drunk driver (After the bleeding on her brain was fixed, a woman who wouldn’t even smoke weed during the 70’s became a woman who saw nothing wrong with smoking crack because “nothing really matters any more.” Her assailant: probation and a $500 fine.) Tell that to the family of the first person who I watched become a piece of meat because he was hit by a drunk driver.

    Drunk driving is only victimless when there aren’t any victims around. Otherwise, get drunk and give a cab company a call before you leave the pub. ‘Nuff said.

    • Not really “nuff said.”

      I think that if you look at secondary factors in the five separate incidents of misfortune that have befallen you, you’ll probably find that these co-factors are the real problem. Honestly, it seems to me that drunk driving was a symptom of your family’s surroundings — not the cause of their problems. And, even in the absence of alcohol, it sounds like there would be something else that caused this American Malavoglia story to happen. Meth, prostitution, whatever … it would always be “someone else’s fault.” Which should lead you to wonder if this sad story doesn’t need a mirror.

      • arizonaplatt says:

        I would add that the very sad list of victims suggests that drunk driving laws may not even be effective in many instances. Evidently they did not prevent these tragedies. Meanwhile they penalized other people who had not actually hurt anyone.

    • Jd says:

      It seems the tragedies you have suffered are accidents that occurred while people were drunk, which is very different than driving while drunk. You are missing the distinction made in the article, and the tactic here are what are wrong with the debate.

  28. darennunnally@yahoo.com says:

    I completely agree MADD is out of control, the day a grauduate from college cant get a job as a truck driver because of one tenth of a percent, Madd is out of control. They have turned into a lobbying giant and they are not going to stop until the real victoms the people who have been pulled over when these municipalities pull dwi saturation to increase revenue band together and fight them. I read the other day people are not being allowed to be teachers with one of these on there record. Where there going with this is rediculous.

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