A compendium of studies related to the enforcement of drunk driving laws was recently published by UCLA’s Alcohol Information Service. Contributors included scholars from the United States, Canada, and Sweden.
A wide range of topics including testing procedures, enforcement judgement and discretion, police tactics, and legal challenges were discussed. There are certain compelling themes that follow through most of these pages.
For the most part, alcohol caused traffic accidents involve drivers with fairly high blood alcohol contents (B.A.C.’s), i.e. greater than .15%. Contrastingly, there is incessant pressure to lower legal B.A.C.’s. The current campaign in most of the country is to drop the B.A.C. to .08% (12 states have already done this). This is to be followed by further efforts to reduce the legal B.A.C. to 05%. For some groups, the ultimate goal is .00%, not only for driving a motor vehicle, but as a standard for responsible social conduct. The US Government endorses this by increasing highway funding for those states that have .08% B.A.C. limits.
Blood alcohol content has taken on far greater importance than behavioral or physical impairment. In fact, the ability to drive safely and skillfully has virtually no bearing in a modern day D.W.I. case. For all practical purposes, the B.A.C. is the first and last word determining guilt.
Herein lies the problem for the police and courts. Under the old B.A.C. standards, typically .15%, there was a strong correlation between what was accepted as drunk driving and the legal B.A.C. threshold. Keep in mind that persons can and always could be arrested for drunk driving, virtually regardless of B.A.C. levels, based on their driving performance.
With B.A.C.’s of .05%, .08%, or even in many instances, .10%, this correlation is either non- existent or very difficult to detect. This layers on a whole new set of problems for law enforcement personnel and the courts.
New testing devices and procedures are necessary to determine if the person is drinking. Next, a decision, based on more tests, is made on whether or not to require a chemical B.A.C. test. Finally, the chemical test must be right on and expertly administered when measuring low, but illegal, B.A.C.’s.
Other problems occur when intrusive enforcement measures must be implemented to identify drivers with low B.A.C.’s. Roadblocks are the best example of a tactic used when there is no probable cause to stop an individual motorist. Roadblocks are not necessary to identify drivers with high B.A.C.’s, nor do they deter problem drinkers.
Police and court “discretion” are inversely related to legal B.A.C. standards. When these standards are no longer reflective of a reasonable behavioral standard, enforcement and adjudication falls off accordingly.
With all this thrashing about looking for perfect irrefutable tests, iron clad identification of all drinking drivers, and impeccably consistent enforcement of ever lower B.A.C.’s, not one of these scholars asked “why?”
The overwhelming number of alcohol-related accidents are attributable to drivers with high B.A.C.’s. Why is so much political and organizational effort being invested in lowering legal B.A.C. standards? Why are valuable and limited public resources being squandered on detecting, apprehending, trying, punishing, and treating persons who, by and large, are not creating highway safety problems? And, why are basic civil rights protections being disregarded when those persons responsible for D.W.I.- related accidents are readily recognized and apprehendable using traditional and accepted law enforcement practices?
All good questions that no one is asking, let alone answering.