Dangerous Sober Drivers

Drunk DrivingBack in 1990, I was visiting a friend who lived in the Mission District in San Francisco. Shortly after leaving the main bus stop there on 15th and Mission, a car wiped out the bus stop, killing a couple of people and injuring many more. I remember being horrified by the news coverage of the event. It turned out, the driver was an old man who had lost control of the car. Most of the coverage, however, was about how shocked the reporters were that the man wasn’t drunk.

Because, you know, it is only drunk drivers who ever kill people? I don’t know. Really, I don’t. I understand that from a legal standpoint, it matters why the driver lost control of his car. But the primary news was that people were dead. And it demonstrates that a lot of people have lost sight of why we have drunk driving laws.

We don’t have these laws because we hate alcohol or drunks. We have these laws because alcohol use greatly reduces the users’ driving skills. This effect is so profound that we have created special laws. But it is still illegal to drive poorly. Knowingly driving when you haven’t had sufficient sleep is just as morally wrong as driving when you’ve had too much to drink. And in the case of the accident at 15th and Mission, the driver was too old to be driving at that time in that place.

I’m sure that this old man thought that he was perfectly capable of driving. But I’m also sure that the vast majority of drunk drivers think the same thing: they might not be quite as good as usual, but they certainly aren’t incapacitated. So why is it that we put a huge moral stigma on drunk drivers but give tired or old drivers a pass? I don’t know, but I really think we ought to figure it out.

The Telegram & Gazette reported yesterday, Trooper Stops Man, 87, After 11 Miles Against Traffic on Pike. That headline tells you everything you need to know about what happened, except for one thing, “Mr. Satkowski was not cited, according to state police.” Because, hey, it’s not like he was drunk; he’s always like that!

This is an important issue. Are our laws meant to make the roads safe? Or are our laws meant to stigmatize behavior we don’t like? Is it more important to moralize about vices than it is to keep people safe? I really wonder about this. Because cases like this certainly seem to imply that our drunk driving laws are really about wagging a finger are drinkers rather than keeping people like me safe when we walk down the street.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Dangerous Sober Drivers

  1. It would make it easier for people to take away their parents keys if there was a law that required everyone over 65 to take an annual driving test. Fail and you can no longer legally drive.

  2. @Andrea — It’s a real problem. What makes it more difficult is that if you don’t live in a city with good public transportation, losing your license for many elderly people can amount to a death sentence. Not everyone has family or friends willing to drive them to the grocery store or doctor’s appointments. On the other hand, if more elderly people relied on public transportation, we might actually get improved public transportation! The boomers are going to be a powerful interest group.

    @Frank — You’re right about DUI being something of a sin law, but drunk-driving laws are the rare instance of a sin law that doesn’t make the problem worse. I particularly like those states which require repeat offenders to buy little breathalyzer machines which hook up to their car ignitions, so they can still go to work. (Forcing someone to lose their job is NOT a way to get them to stop drinking and driving!)
    Still, if we were less interested in punishing vice, we might have free cab rides from bars on more days than St. Paddy’s — or, again, better public transportation, more walkable communities, etc. Not too many DUIs in Copenhagen, I imagine (and it ain’t because there’s a shortage of bars!)

  3. @JMF – I don’t mean to understate the problem of drunk driving–not at all. My issue is with the mooring of our laws to morality rather than practicality. Tired driving is a problem, but we don’t seem inclined to do anything about it because it isn’t a finger wagging issue.

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