Will drinking and driving laws continue to get tougher? (Q&A)

Neil Bartlett

Every year, about 10,000 people die in drunk driving-related auto crashes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You may hear about drinking and driving laws getting more and more strict – but are these new stricter laws cutting down on drunk driving accidents? And what can be done to reduce road deaths caused by drunk driving?

drinking and driving lawsBarron Lerner is author of “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900”. When it comes to the issue of drinking and driving, Lerner has a unique vantage point, combining his expertise on public health (he's a medical doctor and writes regularly for The New York Times) and his skills as a professional historian. He knows well the history and context of drunk driving in the United States.  Lerner spoke with CarInsuranceQuotes.com about why so many Americans drink and drive and how drivers who choose to drink can do so more responsibly.

According to NHTSA, nearly 10,000 people died from drunk driving-related crashes in 2011. About 300,000 incidents of drinking and driving happen each day. Why is drunk driving such a problem in the U.S.?

In the U.S., drunk driving has become stigmatized to a degree, but not nearly as much as in other countries. In 2010 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men age 21 to 34 made up 11 percent of the adult population but were responsible for (nearly a third) of drinking and driving. Drunk driving retains a lot of what's made it appealing over time: it's a daring, “in your face” activity for young men who see driving drunk as part of the drinking experience. It has persisted in the United States more than in other countries where there's been more of a general stigmatization of this process.

Compared with other countries, there's a lack of public transportation in the United States, especially in rural areas. (Also, people) see drinking and driving as an entitlement, with the belief that you can go out and drunk, get tipsy and when it's time to go home, you should just get to go home.

Other countries have more successfully put a roadblock to that mindset. There, people really stop, think, and say to themselves, “Wait a minute. The belief that I can drink excessively and drive well doesn't make sense. I'm really going to get arrested.” We haven't gotten to that point in this country.

Drunk driving deaths haven't dropped for about 15 years. Why?

I think we've gotten fairly close to achieving what public education and stricter laws can do. In the 1980s it was like the Wild West and the drunk driving laws were terrible. Since then, we've seen 20 years of stricter laws and lots and lots of educational programs. I think that people who will respond to those deterrents have responded.

There's still a subset of people who aren't affected by these deterrent measures. They feel that what they want to do (is more important than the) messages about driving drunk they've seen on television and received from other sources.

The U.S. government is proposing lowering the blood alcohol limit of drivers to 0.05 percent from the current 0.08 percent. Do you think that's a good idea? What difference might this change make?

It's a good idea.

Research estimates are that 500 to 750 lives a year would be saved with (a blood alcohol limit of) .05. I don't think anyone really has the right to drink and drive. To me, saving 500 lives by lowering the BAC to .05 makes a lot of sense. But I understand the argument that the law would cramp the lifestyles of millions of people who don't present that much of a threat. I don't agree, but I understand.

Do you have advice on how people can stop drunk driving? What alternatives do they have?

If you're an alcoholic, get honest and get treated for it.

Second, if you're a drinker, make wise decisions. Think about it in advance. If you're buzzed, the odds that you'll come up with some kind of brilliant idea or make a really good, rational decision are much less than if you make choices while you're sober earlier in the evening. Using public transportation is also a good option.

If you have a group of people you drink with all the time, take turns being the designated driver. It won't be as fun for the person who only gets to have a drink early in the evening and then stop. But if you trade off, you can drink more on the other occasions.

You say in your book that drunk driving raises similar concerns to distracted driving, yet they're also different.

There are advantages to seeing them as similar and advantages to distinguishing between them. They're similar because the overall issue is, are you impaired when you're behind the wheel?

Looking at them as similar is a reminder that there are many different ways to drive poorly behind the wheel. If you're driving and you're sleepy and you don't stop and get a cup of coffee, that's just as abhorrent as driving drunk. We each have a duty to be as alert and as competent as possible behind the wheel.

On the other hand, different people have different issues. Groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want you to know that (both distracted driving and drunk driving) are specific, dangerous types of driving.

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