Deterring the Drinking Driver: Legal Policy and Social Control

by H. Laurence Ross
Lexington Books, 129 pp., $22.95

It is not surprising that drunk driving is now an important social issue; what is surprising is that this has taken so long. Each year there are more than 50,000 traffic deaths in the United States; almost two million people are seriously injured. The highway safety organizations, led by the National Safety Council and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), claim that half of these deaths and a significant percentage of the serious injuries are caused by drunk drivers. Although there is reason to believe that this figure is exaggerated, the extent of personal and property damage caused by drunk drivers is staggering, perhaps equal to the damage from all other crimes combined.

The movement against drunk driving is now getting the attention of the press and, more important, of the politicians. Last year almost four hundred safety bills connected with drunk driving were introduced in state legislatures. They provided for, among other things, mandatory jail terms, stiffer fines, automatic forfeiting of licenses, impounding vehicles, and higher minimum drinking ages. Last December, the White House called on the country to observe the first “National Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Week.” On New Year’s Day, after the release of an interim report from the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, President Reagan once again said he was committed to stopping drunk driving. We must, he said, “get these killers off our roads and get them off now.” Not content to await the commission’s final report, Congress passed, and the president signed, a new federal law providing grants to those states that adopt a prescribed set of punishments for drunk drivers.

These events are largely the result of a public-relations and political-action campaign led by two groups, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID), both organized by women who lost husbands or children in accidents involving drunk drivers. Their efforts to arouse the public have been spectacularly successful. Chapters of both organizations are springing up in local communities throughout the country. They have put pressure on politicians by such tactics as the eleven-day candlelight vigil held last October in the lobby of the New York State Assembly. It is doubtful, however, that this crusade will be any more successful in stopping drunk driving than was the Prohibition movement in breaking the alcohol habit.

H. Laurence Ross’s Deterring the Drinking Driver is a comprehensive and painstaking study of efforts to limit drunk driving in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. He concludes that no attempt to stop drunk driving has yet produced any lasting effect. Even the much discussed success of Scandinavian laws that impose strict penalties for anyone driving with high alcohol concentrations (so-called BAC—blood alcohol concentration—levels) turns out to be a myth. Ross’s investigations failed to turn up evidence showing significant decline in the numbers of crashes by drunks after such laws were adopted in Scandinavia.

The failure of “tough” laws and police crackdowns to reduce traffic fatalities caused by drunk…

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