Libertarian writer Radley Balko suggests in Reason that the best way to fight drunk driving might be to get rid of drunk driving laws:
Doing away with the specific charge of drunk driving sounds radical at first blush, but it would put the focus back on impairment, where it belongs. It might repair some of the civil-liberties damage done by the invasive powers the government says it needs to catch and convict drunk drivers. If the offense were reckless driving rather than drunk driving, for example, repeated swerving over the median line would be enough to justify the charge. There would be no need for a cop to jam a needle in your arm alongside a busy highway.
Balko will, no doubt, get mail. (He says on blog, “I promise to share any resulting hate mail.”) But he’s right to raise the issue. Our approach to drunk driving is a lot like some of our other failed policies (marijuana prohibition and the Cuban trade embargo come immediately to mind) that exist in perpetuity despite being obviously ineffective. The political problem is that arguing against those policies is misinterpreted as being in favor of the pathology a policy was intended to combat. Argue that our drunk driving laws are stupid and watch how fast you get tarred as someone in favor of drunk driving.
So, as Balko points out, we’re left with public policy that is intrusive, expensive and doesn’t even work. Better, he says, to focus police manpower on drivers who are driving erratically, whether they’ve been drinking or not.
Several studies have found that talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, causes more driver impairment than a 0.08 BAC. A 2001 American Automobile Association study found several other in-car distractions that also caused more impairment, including eating, adjusting a radio or CD player, and having kids in the backseat. If our ultimate goals are to reduce driver impairment and maximize highway safety, we should be punishing reckless driving. It shouldn’t matter if it’s caused by alcohol, sleep deprivation, prescription medication, text messaging, or road rage.
Instead, we will continue to be subject to sobriety checkpoints, where dozens of cops congregate to harass people at random, most of whom haven’t been drinking at all. While that generates positive media coverage and makes everyone feel good about getting tough on drunk drivers, impaired drivers of all kinds will be weaving around our streets, without a patrol car in sight.