Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect my actual opinions.

June 02, 2004

Legalize drunk driving

Okay, okay, this one's a bit controversial. Comments brimming over with hate and vitriol are always welcome, but please read to the end first, alright?

The conceptual problems begin right at the source, in section 253 of Canada's Criminal Code. Section 253 is within Part VIII, "Offences Against The Person And Reputation". Which person, exactly, is an offence committed against when someone "operates a motor vehicle ... while the person's ability to operate the vehicle ... is impaired by alcohol or a drug"? Who's involved, at that point, according to the code? Only the driver. Read the section. It specifically does not refer to causing death or injury to a person or damage to a reputation. This offence -- if legitimate at all -- certainly doesn't belong in this part of the code, which contains, amongst other delights, infanticide, rape and concealing dead bodies.

That may sound like a trivial point, but it cuts to the very core of the objections I have to this offence. On its own, driving a vehicle while impaired hurts no-one and damages nothing. The actus reus of this offence is simply being drunk while in control of a vehicle. That just doesn't sit right with me. Surely criminal law exists so that we can punish antisocial behaviour, so that people who hurt others (physically, financially, or otherwise) or damage property they don't own can be dealt with in an appropriate manner. Sure, if you drive your car while drunk there's the potential that you might hurt someone, or crash into something and break it. But that's all there is: potential.

Many of the things we do every day carry the potential that something will go wrong and we'll end up causing damage. Whether it's climbing into a car or boiling a pan of water anywhere near small children, we run the risk that someone's gonna get hurt. Risk is unavoidable. I would argue that one cannot, and should not, base any legislation on what could happen given a certain behaviour. Driving while drunk is riskier than driving while sober in the same way that frying eggs is riskier than making a peanut butter sandwich. Impaired driving is the automotive equivalent of running with scissors. It's stupid, but not inherently criminal.

Of course, being drunk reduces your capacity to control the vehicle correctly and safely. But so does eating in your car, or drinking coffee, or smoking, or talking, or listening to the radio, or changing CDs, or putting on lipstick, or looking at the scenery, or anything, really, except staring out of the windshield at the road ahead. If we want to maximise the care taken by drivers while they hurtle along in their two-ton box of metal we should ban all these things. Ban drive-thrus, ban passengers, ban car audio equipment, ban mirrors on sun visors, ban attractive landscapes, ban thinking about anything except the task at hand, which is to steer the vehicle to your destination without killing someone.

I realise at this point that Mothers Against Drunk Driving™ sympathisers are probably apoplectic. They'll be fuming about me showing no respect for the victims of drunk drivers, about me having the nerve to question their anti-alcohol rhetoric. Well, since they're already seriously annoyed, let's take this opportunity to examine one of their "facts" about alcohol-related road deaths.

The M.A.D.D. Hamilton Chapter's web site claims that "4 Canadians [are] killed each day" by drunk drivers. They give no reference for this statistic, of course, but let's extrapolate that out to get a yearly figure and see how that compares with an actual scientific study. Four people killed per day is 1,460 deaths per year -- remember, that's the M.A.D.D. figure. Let's compare that with data collected by The Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada on behalf of Transport Canada. The table on page 20 (table 3-1) reveals that in 2000 981 people were killed in provably alcohol-related accidents, with an estimated 1,069 killed in alcohol-related accidents were the blood alcohol level of the driver known in 100% of cases.

Even given their highest figure, which is, I repeat, an estimate, M.A.D.D.'s "four killed per day" is already over the mark by 36%. If we take their lowest figure, M.A.D.D. is out by nearly 50%. As if that weren't bad enough, there are other factors to be taken into consideration. Table 3-1 also reveals that of the 981 people killed in alcohol-related accidents, 638 of them were the drivers themselves. Can one really consider them to be "innocent victims"? If they are victims at all they are victims of their own stupidity. The same applies for most of the 220 passengers killed each year, who shouldn't've got in a car with a drunk in the first place.

Given this, let's massage the data a little: 981 minus 638 drivers minus, at a conservative guess, 120 passengers who knew the driver was intoxicated equals 223 genuine victims of drunk driving. This is 7% of the 3,162 people killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2000. One can see why M.A.D.D. likes to exaggerate a tad. So if 981 of the 3,162 deaths were caused by alcohol, what caused the 2,181 others? Big Macs? Du Mauriers? Fan 590? Kids shrieking in the back seat? We'd better start legislating right now if we really want to make a difference.

Let me be clear: I'm not arguing for unbridled alcoholic consumption if you know you're gonna be in charge of a vehicle. Drunk driving is massively irresponsible and reckless, and demonstrates a profound lack of consideration for the well-being of your fellow man. I don't condone it, I abhor it. I feel intense sympathy for the families of those killed by drunk drivers, and none of the above is meant to diminish their loss. One person killed by a drunk driver is one too many.

That said, I always like to wrap things up with a cheap laugh, so let's poke fun at another of M.A.D.D.'s statistics: in 1995 nearly 17,000 Canadians were hospitalised because of alcohol-related accidental falls. Such senseless tragedies could be prevented if only Mothers Against Moving Around Whilst Drunk had a cute acronym.


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