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Drunk-Driving Deaths Are Way Down, But …

How much do we really value human life? I know, we all believe life is priceless, but we make transportation decisions all the time that involve painful trade-offs that cost lives. Where do we draw the lines?
Last post, I wrote about the repeal of the national speed limit, a transportation policy that has (arguably) caused thousands of deaths without much apparent public concern or debate. And if on deeper reflection it seems trivial to cause carnage so we can go a little bit faster, keep in mind that we also kill simply so we can have fun. Shocking, but true.
Unless you were abducted by aliens and have been held captive on the planet Xandar for the last 100 years, you know that drunk driving is a bad thing. As if they really had to bother, myriad scientists and social scientists have documented its ill effects. (The first study on the topic was published in 1904.)
According to this review of the literature by E. J. D. Ogden and Herbert Moskowitz, alcohol impairs the analysis of sensory information, slows reaction time in complex situations, impedes multitasking, complicates the processing of visual information, slows tracking, reduces vigilance, dulls alertness, and reduces control of intricate movement. Obviously, none of this helps you to drive any better.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, drunk driving not only increases your chances of being in a crash, but it increases the physical harm that befalls you when a crash does take place.
How serious a problem is this for our society? It depends on your point of view.
Let’s start with the good news. In the last 30 years, we have seen a terrific reduction in the number of fatalities due to DUI. In 1982, we experienced 1.64 alcohol-related road fatalities per 100 million miles driven; in 2007, the figure was 0.43. As a society, we really do deserve a pat on the back for this achievement.
What gets the credit? As Peter Howat, David Sleet, Randy Elder, and Bruce Maycock report, some of this reduction in the fatality rate would have happened anyway, as cars and roads have gotten safer in general. But the majority of the improvement is due to stricter law enforcement, harsher penalties and other regulations, publicity campaigns by worthy organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and organizational policies and economic incentives.
But before we celebrate, things aren’t quite so simple. Obviously, drunk driving is still with us, and over the next couple of posts I’ll look at it in more depth, including the many things we could do to reduce it — if we really have the will.
Correction: Last post, I misspelled the name of one of the authors of the informative report on the speed limit that I cited: my apologies to Jon Bottom (i.e., Jon with no “h”).