TCS Daily


Blood Alcohol Blues

By Max Borders - December 16, 2005 12:00 AM

No one wants to see a family of four killed by a drunk driver. But the United States has veered way out of the lines in its DUI laws, and it's time to rethink them from bumper to bumper.

Whether you're a 220 lb. guzzler with an iron liver or a 120 anorexic who's just had her first drink, you will be evaluated by the same standard in determining whether you're capable of driving. The standard in most states is a .08 blood-alcohol content or BAC. But other states have policies in which an even lower BAC can send you to jail. Recently, for example, the Washington D.C. city council voted in favor of raising its legal BAC from .01 to .05 -- where between .05 and .079 police may use their discretion about whether to make an arrest.

This will be a marginal improvement over rules yielding incidents like the one involving Debra Bolton who was arrested for a BAC of just .03 (that is, a single glass of wine). Allegedly Mrs. Bolton had forgotten to turn on her headlights, and the police pulled her over. But it is not clear that failing to burn one's lights is probable cause for suspecting impairment. (Most of us forget from time to time. It doesn't mean we're drunk.) But in Debra Bolton's case, it was only a quick (and questionable) step from a very charitable interpretation of probable cause, to the evocation of the "police discretion" standard, in which officers may arrest based on their subjective belief that the driver is impaired. After all, when they administered the Intoxilyzer 5000, they came up with a .03 reading -- well below the legal limit.

Despite the laudable .04 percent change in the standard for acceptable BAC in Washington (before "police discretion" can be evoked), the city is still left with a rather draconian DUI law. The Cato Institute's Radley Balko puts all this another way:

But when two-thirds of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve blood-alcohol levels of .14 and above, and the average fatal accident occurs at .17, this move [changing the legal limit from .1 to .08] doesn't make much sense. It's like lowering the speed limit from 65 to 60 to catch people who drive 100 miles per hour. In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed all the statistical data and concluded "the evidence does not conclusively establish that .08 BAC laws by themselves result in reductions in the number and severity of crashes involving alcohol." (Emphasis added.)

The prima facie argument for a single BAC standard is that there is no other fair standard available for police to make a determination. BAC was introduced because many thought that police discretion and sobriety tests were too subjective on their own, and people were thus vulnerable to abuse by cops looking to fill a quota. BAC was to be an objective standard upon which the law would rest -- with subjective sobriety tests becoming a supplement.

It turns out that while the BAC standard is an objective standard for measuring the percentage of alcohol in the blood. It isn't an objective standard of someone's ability to drive safely. The very term DUI stands for "driving under the influence." But the breathalyzer and other BAC measures can't determine the influence of alcohol on one's reaction times, faculties, and motor skills. If we were trying to determine whether someone is actually impaired, aren't reaction times, faculties and motor skills what we ought to be looking at?

To be fair, there was a time in which the BAC standard made sense. In the absence of a better standard, a proxy standard would have had to suffice -- just as age 65 might be a reasonable proxy standard for testing elderly drivers for the degenerative effects of aging.

So the question comes down to this: Are there other (non-cost prohibitive) standards available for testing drivers? One's that actually test for impairment?

You bet -- and they're inexpensive.

My tentative suggestion would be a portable driving simulator. If we train fighter-pilots and astronauts on sims, why not test drivers with them? In fact, there are all sorts of computer programs sitting on servers at different universities around the country, not to mention in for-profit companies. There are programs for everything from learning to drive an eighteen wheeler, to -- eureka -- testing people's driving abilities under the influence.

Even if we thought the driving simulators extant were somehow insufficient for the task of determining whether or not someone is impaired, we know the technology exists and that a prototype for cops could be worked up in a matter of months. Don't believe me? This following list of games should give us an idea of what's out there:

I admit that a formalized simulation might have to be studied extensively. But the technology is there: 3-D virtual reality glasses, algorithms that recreate physical forces, graphics, sound -- and everything else cool and realistic that you might find in your kids' X-Box 360.

While such new technologies may have to be reworked and tested for use as a legal standard, it's certainly a significantly better objective standard for determining whether a person is capable of driving than breathalyzers. And while there may be a minor inferential step from someone's score on the simulation to the presence of alcohol in her body, such a step is far, far narrower than the giant leap between BAC and impairment.

In the interests of justice, have our lawmakers even looked into these options?

Max Borders is Managing Editor for TCS Daily. He is also founder of the Wingbeat Project.

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5 Comments

Better test
True. Not to mention that a simulator would also pick up on someone being too tired to drive (assuming the adrenaline rush of being stopped didn't overcome that deficiency).

In fact, I'd like to see something like this put in place for licensing purposes as well. There are some folks who are, even dead sober, terrible drivers.

Cell phones next???
Various studies have shown that talking on a cell phone impairs driving at a level equivalent to a BAC of .08 to .10

A friend almost quit driving (commercially) because a woman swerved across the road directly into his path. She wasn't drinking or otherwise impaired, but when they pulled her out of the mess, the cell phone was active.

a solution in search of a problem
Good grief, this is the kind of silly opinion column that makes people think geeks haven't enough common sense to come in out of the rain. Of the major social problems facing the Republic, and to solve which it's worth spending real money, being *precisely* sure you nail people who are actually impaired ranks about, mmmmm, 1,665th, I'd say.

Yes, a simular would be much better in principle at making the decision of whether you can operate the vehicle safely or not. But have you thought this thoroughly out? Who's going to design the simulator? Who's going to pick the scenario it simulates? (Can't be too long, of course -- the cop doesn't have 30 minutes to spare testing someone.) What's a "passing" score going to be? Is it more important that the person exhibit good reflexes or good judgment? Both? How are you going to weight them? How are you going to summarize the evidence for the jury? How are you going to train the cop? Certify the product? And on and on. The idea that this is "simple" is, well, simple-minded.

Technophiles must realize in general that the application of technology is largely limited or driven by social factors, not the capabilities or limitations of the technology itself. You've only to ask yourself why there are no Moon colonies 36 years after the first man walked on the Moon to see this.

Disagree on solution in search of problem
Where we really could use this in a lab-type situation is at the MVD when a 65+ year-old driver renews a driver's license. Would take the mystery out of the process and put the burden on an objective technology, not the kids. Then, if the technology proved itself, move it out to the highways.

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