This is both a request for factual information and an opinion about how it might be applied.
The Washington Post ran a story Sunday about the consequences of a drunken driving arrest. They followed the cases of everybody arrested for dwi/dui in one suburban county in one week, almost 100 people. A blood alcohol level of .08 or more is considered proof of drunken driving, and almost everyone was convicted on that basis. Most first offenders got probation and mandatory counseling, they lost their licenses for a year and had to pay fines, court costs and attorney fees. The paper calculated that the direct cost of the arrest totals between $5,000 and $20,000 for each driver. In addition, some people lost their jobs, some went to jail because they couldn’t pay fines, and in one case a marriage broke up. One woman who had one drink at dinner with friends landed in jail.
This paragraph startled me:
In effect, an action that would not be illegal for some people becomes a serious crime for others based on gender and ethnicity.
This leads me to ask whether blood alcohol level, by itself, is a valid measure of impairment. Suppose you lined up 100 people from every background, a rainbow of the human race, and administered enough alcohol to raise every person’s blood alcohol level to exactly .08. Using standard computerized tests for coordination, reaction time, depth perception etc., would all 100 people be impaired to the same degree? If so, then using the blood alcohol measure to lock people up is probably fair. But if there are differences in performance when blood alcohol level is the same, then applying that rigid standard across the board seems inherently unfair, especially when the legal consequences can be so serious. The question should be “Can you drive safely?,” not “Have you been drinking?”.
Alcohol testing also doesn’t do anything to get people off the road who are using illegal drugs, or legal prescriptions that may cause drowsiness, or working triple shifts in the local factory or hospital. Is there an argument to be made that blood testing should be replaced by some kind of standardized performance testing? Is such equipment commercially available? Would this be a fairer system?
I’m in no way defending drunken driving. But the reason for locking people up who exceed a specified blood alcohol level is the presumption that they are dangerous drivers. If that’s not true, they shouldn’t go to jail. I wonder whether it would make more sense to alter the charge to something like Driving While Impaired, and the legal question would be whether or not someone was actually able to drive safely, not whether he had imbibed alcohol.