Deterring The Drinking Driver

Deterrence based on the threat of arrest, conviction, and punishment remains the chief strategy in the attack on drunk driving. During the 1980s, state and local governments have established dozens of strike forces and passed hundreds of laws aiming to raise the costs to the offender of driving while intoxicated. In a series of empirical evaluations of police crackdowns and elevated maximum punishments in the United States and abroad, the sociologist H. Laurence Ross found that this type of law-enforcement escalation usually produces a reduction in drunk driving (as measured by single-vehicle fatalities), but not a long-term reduction. ''No such policies have been scientifically demonstrated to work over time under conditions achieved in any jurisdiction . . . the option of merely increasing penalties for drinking and driving has been strongly discredited by experience to date.''

While Ross has done far more empirical research than anybody else on deterring the drunk driver, his conclusion is not uncontroversial. One criticism is that he uses single-vehicle automobile fatalities to measure the amount of drunk driving; however, this kind of accident might not be strongly associated with the full range of drunk driving, but only with a narrow group, the most drunken and reckless of drunk driving. Possibly, while law-enforcement escalations cannot affect the kind of drunk drivers who kill themselves in single-vehicle crashes, they might be effective in the far more numerous non-fatal drunk-driving episodes that are engaged in by less pathological alcohol abusers and sociopathological persons.

The number of traffic fatalities has fallen from the late 1980s into the 1990s; drunk-driving fatalities seem to have fallen more than non-alcohol-related accidents. There may be reasons for this other than deterrence, including general re ductions in alcohol consumption and abuse and more responsible public attitudes toward sober driving—however, a marginal deterrence effect cannot be ruled out.

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