Booze, Driving, and Surveillance: How Drunk Is Too Drunk?

By the time this reaches print, the New Years carnage on the roads will be over. If I were slightly more dedicated, I might pass up a really great party and a favorite band to go watch. The flesh is weak, so I won’t. You can bet that the ambulance crews are getting ready for a busy evening. Regarding which, a few thoughts on alcohol, driving, cops, and the public:

Society hasn’t decided what it thinks about drinking and driving. The politically correct mood today is that it is a bad thing to do. Yet it is also an accepted part of life to well over half the population. (As somebody said, if drinking and driving is bad, how come bars have parking lots?) Most people will have a glass of wine, or three, at a restaurant, and then drive home. Go to any sports bar, or any bar with a band, and watch how many pitchers come to a lot of the tables. The occupants then drive off.

Cops drink and drive too, though not on duty. After the shift ends, often they’ll go to the cop watering-hole and hoist a couple. Puritans they aren’t.

This ambivalence makes for problems in law-enforcement. How much alcohol is too much alcohol, and how intrusive should the cops be in pursuing drivers who have been drinking?

The political backdrop is that various groups constantly try to lower the blood-alcohol content that is the threshold for legal drunkenness. Perhaps the most prominent is MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. (I’ve heard of another group, DAMM, Drunks Against Mad Mothers). The problem is that by and large the anti-alcolho folk do not seem to believe that any BAC at all is acceptable. As soon as a new low has been legislated, they want to lower it yet again.

Soon it is low enough that someone who has had a beer or two is in the very-expensive-ticket range. At this point public hostility arises. Everyone is against genuine drunk driving, but most resent being afraid of losing their licenses over what they have always done.

So what do we want the cops to do?

Typically if a cop sees a car wandering back and forth across the centerline, he’ll stop it. If the car reeks like a distillery when the driver rolls the window down, the cop he will administer a sobriety test. He will do this because those are his orders, and also because he knows that people who stray over the centerline eventually kill other people. Those tests are embarrassing: Close your eyes, and put the tip of your finger on your nose; now walk a straight line? If the driver isn’t in fact drunk, he’ll be irate.

Which happens. I’ve seen a car stopped that smelled like a winery from the rear bumper, yet the blood alcohol was well within legal limits.

This brings up the devices, now available though not widely used, which detect alcohol fumes that the cop couldn’t himself. You get stopped for a dead taillight and, though you are driving perfectly, the officer’s alcohol sensor says somebody in the car has been drinking. Now what? Does he administer the sobriety test?

He will do whatever his orders are, and these come from the legislature. But what do we want the legislature to tell the police? The combination of ambient-air sensors, which will become ever more sensitive as technology advances, plus lower and lower allowable BACs, will make an ever-growing proportion of us subject to heavy penalties for driving under the influence.

Two questions are involved here. First, technology allows an increasing degree of intrusiveness on the part of law-enforcement. The Internet is easy to monitor by the FBI. Cameras at intersections can photograph red-light runners or (technically possible) check all traffic for specific license numbers. Alcohol sensors can determine whether you’ve had a beer. All of this can be, will be, done with the best of motives. It’s still growing intrusiveness. How far do we want to let this go?

Second, maybe we need clear and rational laws about drinking and driving. What BAC should be allowed, based on impairment and not politics? Do we think people should be able to have a beer or two and drive home, or don’t we? I don’t take the question lightly: I’ve seen blood running in the streets because of drunks at the wheel. So have cops. But if we keep lowering the limit, and improving means of detection, most people will one day be criminals.

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