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Drunk Driving: How Hard Should We Slam on the Brakes?

Those of you who post comments can be cantankerous: one day I’m going to put up a piece lauding oxygen or shoes just to see how determined the cynics can be. This skepticism is certainly welcome, as there’s nothing we on this blog love more than spirited debate, whether you’re with or against us.
Because I’m going to move forward and write about potential remedies for drunk driving, I want to address a few of the criticisms from people who took issue with my last post about alcohol and death on the roads. This struck a chord with some of you, who essentially maintained that we shouldn’t consider further remedies on principle.
There are valid reasons to be skeptical of new anti-DUI measures, but reader “Darwin’s” is not among them:

Presumably what we are trying to avoid is the loss of human life. However, if people aren’t getting killed by drunk drivers then they’re getting killed by inattentive drivers, or tornadoes, or oil rig explosions, or or or…we can’t prevent all human deaths caused by non health related issues.

This type of argument can essentially be reduced to the proposition that since we cannot solve every problem in the world simultaneously we should not attempt to solve any of them. It’s a pretty weak line of reasoning, though it is used surprisingly often and not just in this context. It would mean that every bit of progress since upright walking has not been worth the effort.
Plus, there’s no reason that we can’t tackle oil rig explosions simultaneously while we deal with DUI. Successfully in both cases, I hope.

Alcohol “impairs” sex, homework and conversation, putting “social costs” on the rest of us. Do Mad Mothers [i.e. MADD] want to prohibit drinking before sex, drinking while doing homework, drinking while conversing? Maybe. Some of us find eating, sex, homework and conversing tolerable ONLY after drinking.

This argument is also pretty suspect. Yes, many activities involve externalizing social costs. But surely the burden on others of not doing your homework or failing to sparkle in repartee pale in comparison to killing an innocent person.
This is not to say there aren’t valid arguments against some measures for controlling drunk driving. Anti-DUI policies have many potential costs, in terms of money, hassle, time, infringement of civil liberty, infeasibility, ineffectiveness, and even cruelty.
And then, let’s admit it, there is the greatest cost of all. As “Malthus” rightly points out, many of us really, really enjoy drinking, so much so that we are willing to risk prison and even the guilt of having taken another’s life simply because alcohol makes for such a good time. Like it or not, these feelings can’t be dismissed out of hand. Though it may seem coarse, and though we might not want to just come right out and say it, many of us probably believe that the pleasures of inebriation are of such magnitude that they justify a certain level of social cost, even when that cost falls on innocent parties.
However, the evidence suggests that there are probably remedies that would help without causing us undue hardship.
As I’ve written, alcohol-related fatalities have dropped considerably since 1982 thanks to a number of public policy initiatives. Has our quality of life plummeted? In fact, one could make a case that it’s far better; for example, Joannie Loves Chachi is no longer one of the most watched television shows.
Moreover, I’ve also shown you that the share of fatal crashes involving alcohol is far less in other countries than in ours, with little apparent drain on their quality of life.
How do they do it? Sometimes with tough policies that most of us probably wouldn’t be willing to accept. For example, one reader wrote:

Few years ago I was in Norway for a wedding. At a lunch, few days before the wedding, I offered to give a lift to a few people that were staying at the same hotel.
I ordered a light beer. Within a few seconds, I was notified that nobody would drive back with me. They have an Absolute Zero tolerance policy. If you sniff a beer, you’re driving alone and nobody will take a ride with you. The reason: If caught in a car when the driver is over 0.5 g/l , the driving license of everybody is suspended. Everybody meaning all passengers. As a passenger, if you have a driving license, you know that you should not let someone drive drunk. It’s really extreme, but it works very well.

Perhaps this is draconian, but other measures can be relatively painless. For example, fans of my beloved Cubs can still have the anesthetic they require to make it through another futile day at the park. But in contrast to when I was cheering on the ’84 season from the bleachers, beer sales are now cut off for the last few innings. Judging from the way the Cubs sell tickets, this doesn’t seem to be an unacceptable hardship, and it does give people a little time to sober up. Most of us are probably willing to accept this relatively mild restriction on our freedom.
(Idea: how about requiring bars to stop serving alcohol an hour before closing time?)
In short, it’s worth looking at possible new measures pragmatically and on a case-by-case basis, analyzing their costs and benefits and not staking out an all-or-nothing position. Coming up, I’ll let you decide which further steps, if any, may be effective yet acceptable.