The costs of (reducing) drunk driving

Bill Lueders quotes Mark Grapentine of the Wisconsin Medical Society:

“It has been interesting to watch how there has been a lack of progress in an area where there seems to be a tremendous amount of agreement on the need to do something,” Grapentine says. Wisconsin remains the only state where first-offense drunken driving is not a crime, although the civil penalties include license suspension and substantial fines.

Two state lawmakers, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, plan to re-introduce bills to hike state drunken driving penalties. Darling aide Bob Delaporte said the bills have been redrafted “exactly the same” as last session, but could yet be revised.

One bill would make first-offense drunken driving with a high blood-alcohol content a crime, and raise penalties for a second offense. Another would make third and fourth offenses felonies, and increase the severity of subsequent charges.

Last time around, the bills were backed by the Wisconsin Medical Society and a law enforcement association. No lobby group registered in opposition and, according to Grapentine, no one spoke up at the hearings to say, “Oh, this drunk driving stuff, it’s not really a problem.”

But the bills went nowhere, due to what Grapentine calls “the dollar factor.”

Higher drunken driving penalties increase prosecutors’ workloads as well as county jail and state prison costs. A fiscal estimate from the state Department of Corrections put the cost of the bill regarding third and subsequent offenses at between $169 million and $204 million annually. Other agencies also weighed in, predicting higher costs.

Finances are a significant factor when, unlike the federal government, you cannot spend more money than you have. (By the legal definition of “balanced budget,” if not the actual definition.) You can talk all you like about the societal costs of drunk driving, but government isn’t paying those beyond the costs of law enforcement, medical services, and the cost of prosecuting and imprisoning those convicted of drunk driving. And the first and last of those increases if penalties for drunk driving are increased. For that matter, alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation isn’t cheap either, and rehab has a high failure rate.

The drunk drivers who get the most media attention are those with multiple drunk driving convictions. (Including, recently, an Ohioan who picked up his 10th drunk driving conviction while driving through southwest Wisconsin. Before him, there was the man who on Labor Day was arrested for 11th-offense drunk driving, while he was out on bond on drunk driving charge number 10.)

It seems obvious that the current penalties for felony drunk driving (which begin with fifth-offense drunk driving) do not dissuade such people from driving drunk. Add to that group the surprising (at least to me) number of people arrested multiple times for driving after their driver’s license has been suspended or revoked. The only way those people apparently can be dissuaded from driving drunk is to physically separate them from any motor vehicle. That means locking them up.

There is a billboard on U.S. 151 near Presteblog World Headquarters that claims that a drunk driving conviction costs the drunk driver $10,000. I don’t know if this is correct (and I don’t intend to find out through experience), but if it is, that fact clearly isn’t dissuading drunk drivers either. You would think that one of those $10,000 tickets would dissuade someone convicted of first-offense drunk driving from picking up conviction number, but apparently you’d be mistaken.

(It’s analogous to one of the main problems with the death penalty — the inability of advocates to prove its deterrent ability. Most homicides are crimes of passion, which don’t fit the usual legal definition of first-degree murder. For the death penalty to be a deterrent would require much more widespread use — for any degree of murder, and possibly even such instances as homicide by drunk driving — with much less time between conviction and execution.)

Traffic tickets, including first-offense drunk driving, are civil forfeitures. The standard for conviction is strict liability, or “preponderance of the evidence.” The standard for conviction for criminal charges — misdemeanors and felonies — is, remember, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The stiffer the penalties, the more expensive prosecution is, in part because the increased incentive to fight the charges.

There are other costs to stepping up enforcement or penalties. Police cannot pull over a vehicle for no reason; police must have probable cause — such as speeding, driving too slowly, driving at night without headlights, inability to stay in the correct lane, etc. Sobriety checkpoints are used in some states, even though they are an unconstitutional abuse of our Fourth Amendment rights. (Sobriety checkpoints treat everyone as guilty.) Police officers who are looking strictly for drunk drivers are officers who are not able to do anything else, such as deter crime in high-crime areas by driving or walking through the neighborhood.

Unless Wisconsinites want to increase enforcement to police-state levels, drunk driving seems to be one of those things that won’t be reduced by more laws, but only by cultural attitude change — by taking driving more seriously than merely getting in the car, turning it on, and leaving point A in search of point B.

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