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Dirty DWI Secrets

In response to the discussion of DWI (sorry, Windy, in Texas if you’re a grownup it’s DWI; DUI is the crime someone under 21 commits when he drives with any alcohol in his system) that started here, Chicago’s Windy Pundit gives us the numerical rundown on the real danger of DWI:

Drunk driving isn’t as dangerous as they’d like you to believe. In 2006 according to numbers provided by MADD, 17,602 people died in alcohol-related crashes. You might think that means that a drunk drivers killed 17,602 people, but the NHTSA study from which they apparently pulled that number counts as alcohol-related any crash “involving at least one driver, pedestrian, or pedalcyclist with a BAC of .01 or above.” In other words, for it to count as alcohol-related, the drinker doesn’t have to be drunk or driving. A little further down, the NHTSA report gives the number of fatalites in accidents where a driver was over the legal limit as 8615, or about half the number MADD uses. And even this number is probably high, because it includes accidents where the drunk driver was not at fault. MADD also says that a 2002 survey indicated that Americans took 159 million alcohol-impaired driving trips. If only 8615 of them ended in DUI fatalities, that means that alcohol-impaired driving has a 1 in 18,000 chance of a fatality. Make no mistake, that’s very high, but it doesn’t mean that every drunk who hits the road is the moral equivalent of a murder waiting happen. In order to have a 50/50 chance of killing someone, you’d have to make 12,000 impaired trips—driving home drunk from the bar every night for 35 years.

NHTSA statistics suggest that there are about 65 people injured in traffic crashes for every person killed in a traffic crash. Assuming that the same ratio holds true for alcohol-related crashes, if there’s a 1 in 18,000 chance of a fatality for every alcohol-impaired driving trip, then there’s a 1 in 277 chance of an injury. In order to have a 50/50 chance of hurting someone (including yourself), you’d have to make 195 impaired trips — driving home drunk from the bar twice a week for two years. (Windy, I’m using your assumptions — doublecheck my math, please.)

According to the CDC, 1.4 million people were arrested for DWI for those 159 million self-reported alcohol-impaired trips, which means that alcohol-impaired driving has a 1 in 114 chance of resulting in an arrest. In order to have a 50/50 chance of getting arrested, you’d have to make 75 impaired trips — driving home drunk from the bar three times a week for six months.

I’ve written that the difference between a successful drive home from the bar and one that leaves someone in jail, the hospital, or the morgue, is nothing more than dumb luck. Windy helps us measure that luck. I’m all in favor of a steely economic analysis of things that go bump in the night; I think that Americans are much too willing to blow risks out of proportion and overreact to them, as well as to react in ways that don’t reduce the risk in proportion to their cost. (See last year’s post about Managing the Risk of Child Sex Abuse.) But the danger of an individual trip resulting in disaster, and the number of trips that it takes to give you an even chance of disaster, doesn’t say anything about the magnitude of the disaster.

Our economists (or personal injury lawyers) might be able to put some prices on the average alcohol-caused crash fatality, and the average alcohol-caused crash injury. I suspect that the numbers would be large.

Even without those numbers, though, consider this: in Texas a DWI arrest will cost the accused at least $5,000 if he doesn’t hire a lawyer, and more if he wants to try to avoid conviction by hiring a lawyer. Every time you drive while impaired you’re betting that you won’t get caught. The rational person would spend at least $43.85 ($5,000 divided by 114) to avoid driving under the influence. That’s two ten-mile Yellow Cab rides in Houston.

None of this is to say that the MADDness of our DWI laws is the right approach to DWI, but intoxicated drivers are a real problem. Like most all societal problems, if it’s not solved by us rational people it’ll be solved by the kooks.


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