Drunk Driving Deaths: More an Outrage than a Tragedy

I will never forget one of the most horrible phone calls I ever received, even though it was over 20 years ago: “John was killed yesterday by a drunk driver”. John was a valued colleague and wonderful soul who died young when someone driving on a suspended license (lost due to a prior drunk driving conviction) took John’s life and those of the two other passengers in his car. People close to me have received even worse calls “Your father is dead, a drunk driver cross the center line and killed him”, “This is the state highway patrol, I am sorry to tell you that your daughter and grandaughter are dead”. Dozens of calls like this are received by horrified people every day in our country.

Is this a tragedy? In the common usage of the word tragedy as something very sad, of course it is. But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage. We have a technology that has been convincingly shown to reduce drink driving deaths, but most states are not using it. It’s called 24/7 Sobriety and it not only reduces intoxicated driving, but domestic violence and imprisonment too.

The details of this remarkably simple, effective program are in my article at Wall Street Journal.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Drunk Driving Deaths: More an Outrage than a Tragedy”

  1. 24/7 Sobriety can surely only work for habitual drunks. It can't prevent crashes caused by occasional drunkenness, as with teenagers at a party. Do you have relative numbers here? Intuition would suggest that casual drinkers would dominate the statistics, since there are many more of us; but intuition may mislead, as the heavy drinkers are drunk a very much higher proportion of the time.

    1. The program is targeted at repeat offenders, whose contribution to drink driving deaths is 400% of that of those with no prior convictions.

      1. Sorry. Four times the rate per drunk driver, or four times the number of deaths?
        Either way, the statistic nails the myth that habitual drunk drivers learn to cope.

        1. It's the ratio between the share of repeat drunk drivers on the road and their share of people in alcohol-related auto fatalities, i.e., a study that shows that in the state of wherever X% of licensed drivers have been convicted of DWI in the past Y months/years, will usually find that about 4X% of drivers in fatal crashes have been convicted of DWI in the past Y months/years.

          1. Shorthand: a driver with a previous conviction for DWI (presumed to be a regular drunk driver) is four times as likely to kill somebody later with a car than a driver with no such conviction (non-drinker, casual drinker, or lucky heavy drinker). Fine, or rather not fine. The 4X is a lower bound, as some of the DWI perps presumably stop drinking by themselves and exit the high-risk population. This all completely justifies paying a lot of law enforcement attention to repeat drunk drivers. But the numbers don't tell us anything about the share of repeat drunks vs, occasional drunks in the DWI death toll. The second group call for a different, complementary strategy,

  2. Also, you would offer a rather draconian solution for what is possibly .001 over the "legal" limit, which isn't actually anything resembling actual science? (Just FYI, my 20-year-old daughter died driving drunk. So I know. I really do. but this wouldn't have made any difference.)

    1. I am very sorry about your daughter.

      The program is targeted at repeat offenders, who average around double the legal limit in BAC.

  3. @JamesWimberly. I would guess that there's a strong power-law distribution and that the small heavy-drinking drivers are responsible for a hugely disproportionate share of the accidents. But I don't know the data.

    Keith, I read the comments at WSJ (always a mistake) but one did raise an important question: people are in the program for, on average, five months. What happens after they leave?

    1. Hi Jay: As with HOPE Probation, if the answer were that they go immediately back to their old behavior, the program would still have great value – the long run is a series of short-runs. As it happens, it appears to be even better than that — raw arrest rates for DWI 3 years later are lower relative to people getting the usual penalties. That data though could be better analyzed so consider it a tentative conclusion until Beau Kilmer and his team come out with their paper on this.

    2. · 1 minute ago
      Jay: I share your prior. As I said, the regular drunks are drunk a much, much higher proportion of the time that they are at the wheel, so the chance of a random DWI being a regular drunk are much, much higher than their share of the over-time population of drunks. Also, they drink more. You or I would have passed out or died at the blood concentrations some of these characters manage.

      1. Agreed. I rarely drink, and after three beers I'd have trouble figuring out where to put the key.

      2. Sorry to be slow, but I don't understand. It seems like you are saying that since "regular drunks"/alcoholics? are drunk so much of the time, and therefore, they are drunk so much of the time that they spend driving … that they are a high/er proportion of the number of DUIs caught in any one day … than they are in the "overtime population of drunks," which I take to mean (but I am not sure) the full number of people who have ever driven drunk over X number of years (some/many of whom are not alcoholics in general)?

        Is that right? Also, if right, why would they get caught more? Because they are drunker and more obviously driving badly?

        I looked at the comments a little higher up, and it seems as if we are trying to figure out whether new drunk drivers or experienced/convicted DUI drivers are causing most of the accidents? To see if getting these few folks off the road is the best focus, v. trying to prevent new drunk drivers with each generation? Also a fun brain experiment.

        And here's a thought – not a happy thought – what if the worst part of being a DUI driver is that you will get blamed for all accidents, whether or not they are really your fault? Of course, the ones I read about in the paper, the BAC is usually something really obscene, like twice or something. But I wonder if that is representative.

        Anyway, I am all for putting resources into this, the research, the prevention, all of it. Gizmos for everyone!

  4. It sounds to me as if there are some good reasons to have such a program — even just the decrease in domestic violence might be enough. Though maybe it should be also aimed specifically at those people — would we need a domestic violence while impaired law? Because some of those folk probably aren't driving, so we aren't getting all of them!

    I wouldn't though say that avoiding a night in jail is a minor issue, nor that this program isn't helping the addict just as much as a chichi Malibu sobriety center does. The jail is helping the person not drink, period.

    The issue of what happens afterwards is interesting, also a cost-benefit comparison of just not letting DUI folk drive for a year or two (I think we go way too easy on them re: cars), or maybe 5 or 10. It would be hard to know how many crashes involve habitual DUI drivers who just haven't been caught too, but maybe there's no way.

    Also, to be more fair to people, I agree we ought to have more research on appropriate BAC levels, *and* we should make every bar have one of those little gizmos for people to use on the way out the door. I suppose there is probably an app for that by now but what if your battery's gone?

  5. I had an interesting conversation with a fellow in an airport a month ago – a highly skilled blue collar worker in the oil industry, in his late 60's and still working. He told me how a few years ago he came out of his local bar like he usually did, drunk, and got in his car, and was pulled over a couple of hundred yards down the street, right in front of his church. As a 3rd time offender, he was sent to jail for 6 months. "It was God telling me to stop drinking," he said. He had that look of a man who has been drinking hard his entire life – like there's no fat under the skin of his face, just bone. A lot of his story was about how he used to work drunk all the time, and how alcohol had fucked up his life – ruined his marriage, turned his daughter against him. But now, it seems, he's doing okay. He's well aware how lucky he is that he never killed himself or anyone else. Perhaps he could have been helped to stop drinking after his first DUI with a program like this one.

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