Drunk Until Proven Innocent

Admittedly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is a tough group to oppose. It represents the forces of good (mothers) against the bad (drunk drivers). But the group has strayed from its roots. Once upon a time, MADD simply used public awareness to combat drunk driving; now it advocates ineffective authoritarian policies to eliminate all drunk driving.

Drunk driving is certainly a scourge that endangers thousands of innocent bystanders annually. Nevertheless, we have to take a sober approach to the problem, lest we zealously impose unnecessary restrictions that infringe on individual privacy and assume guilt rather than innocence.

The latest MADD campaign, reported by the New York Times yesterday, is to mandate ignition interlocks for everyone convicted of a drunk driving offense. Over 70,000 ignition interlocks, which force drivers to pass a breath test to start their car and then to periodically re-test while the vehicle is in operation, are already used in some parts of the United States. To date, these have been forced only upon those convicted of driving under the influence (DUI), but legislators in New York are now considering a law that would require all new cars to come with a lock pre-installed.

The use of interlocks is necessary because “the threat of arrest and punishment…is no longer working” to discourage drunk driving, according to officials cited by the Times. Of course, this article goes on to state that the number of alcohol-related fatalities has remained steady over the past decade. Given that the number of cars on the road and the number of miles driven have increased, this means that the number of fatalities per car and per mile—more pertinent statistics—have declined.

Moreover, much-quoted “alcohol-related” numbers are about as relevant to the problem of drunk driving as the ratio of cars to bumblebees. These numbers, rolled out by MADD like WWI howitzers, do not evaluate whether drinking actually contributed to the accident. So, if a sober driver hits a driver who had a beer at dinner, it is recorded as an “alcohol-related” accident. In fact, as noted by Radley Balko, a Cato Institute analyst, when the Los Angeles Times examined accident data in 2002, it found that only 5,000 of the 18,000 “alcohol-related” fatalities involved a drunk driver killing a sober individual.

That said, it would be foolish not to take cost-free steps to reduce the number of drunk driving accidents. Alas, interlocks are not a cost-free panacea. Although legislators typically spend other people’s money with wild abandon, even the most starry-eyed politician might balk at mandating the use of these locks, which cost rougly $1,000 per year. This increase, over two percent of the median American’s annual income, would significantly harm the quality of millions of Americans’ lives, imposing costs on adults who never drink.

The test case cited as justification for MADD’s policy is New Mexico, which made the locks mandatory after a driver’s first DUI. The New York Times implies that the devices are responsible for N.M.’s 11.3 percent drop in alcohol-related fatalities last year, despite noting that “New Mexico was not the only state to record a decline in alcohol-related motoring deaths” and that other states “showed even bigger drops.” Furthermore, the rule did not take effect until June 2005, midway through the year in which it supposedly cut the fatality rate.

On the other hand, the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Ignition Interlock in California” concluded that the devices “are not effective in reducing DUI convictions or incidents [after being imposed] for first-time DUI offenders.” (The study did show, however, that the risk of crashing was higher for offenders with a lock installed—perhaps because they were being asked to conduct breath tests while driving.) If the locks have no effect when imposed after a first DUI conviction—which presumably selects for the most likely drunk drivers—what is the chance that they will have an effect if foisted upon millions of people who simply want a new car?

But the MADD anti-drunk-driving campaign doesn’t slow down for facts: En route to an accident-free utopia, who cares if our civil rights are run over. Many states already penalize drivers arrested for—not convicted of—drunk driving by revoking their license, and Los Angeles makes a tidy profit by seizing their cars as well. Washington, meanwhile, tells juries in DUI cases to “assume the truth of the prosecution’s...evidence” and make their decision “in a light most favorable to the prosecution,” according to The Seattle Times. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? Do drunk driving suspects not deserve the same protections given to accused serial killers?

When it comes to drunk driving, these laws place the burden of proof on the defendant: Drunk until proven innocent indeed. Mandatory universal ignition interlocks are merely another step down the slippery slope of imposing ever more obtrusive punishments on people who have not been convicted of a crime. You don’t have to be a Montana libertarian—always on the lookout for the U.N.’s Blackhawk helicopters—to see this as another step toward an Orwellian world where the government has a lock-iron grip on individual actions in the name of health and safety.

Ultimately, the MADD goal of eliminating all drunk driving will require preventing any drinking whatsoever prior to driving; if no one can drink one beer, no one can drink 12. Progressive Puritanism—the endeavor to eliminate all risky behaviors—might eventually succeed in creating a safe, well-organized society, but we’ll have to forget about having that innocent glass of wine at a restaurant.

Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.