Archive for October 23rd, 2004

A Closer Look at DUI Fatality Statistics

Saturday, October 23rd, 2004

For years now the "DUI crackdown", along with the accompanying loss of constitutional rights, has been justified by the numbers of deaths on the highways caused by drunk drivers. As the U.S. Supreme Court in Michigan v. Sitz said, for example, DUI "sobriety checkpoints" appear to violate our Fourth Amendment right to be free of suspicionless stops by the police — but this illegal intrusion on our privacy is "outweighed" by the "carnage" on our highways of 25,000 deaths caused each year by alcohol.

From where did these statistics come? Years ago, the statistics kept on traffic fatalities included a category for "alcohol-caused" deaths. To justify such things as sobriety checkpoints, lowered blood alcohol levels and automatic at-the-scene DUI license suspensions, however, these statistics were subtly changed to "alcohol-related". Not "caused", but related.

This meant that a perfectly sober driver who hit and killed an intoxicated pedestrian, for example, would be involved in an "alcohol-related" incident. Similarly, a sober driver who is struck by another sober driver carrying an intoxicated passenger chalked up another "alcohol-related" death. Further, if the officer believes the driver to be intoxicated but chemical tests show he is not, the death is nevertheless reported as "alcohol-related". In fact, if the tests indicate the presence of any alcohol at all, say .02%, the fatality will be chalked up as "alcohol-related".

In 1999, the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed these figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — and issued a report stating that they "raised methodological concerns calling their conclusions into question ". The statistics, the GAO report said, "fall short of providing conclusive evidence that .08% BAC laws were, by themselves, responsible for reductions in alcohol related fatalities." In other words, the statistics weren't even valid when applied to alcohol-related fatalities, much less alcohol-caused deaths.

So what are the real numbers? The Los Angeles Times also decided to investigate the validity of these statistics. In 2002, NHTSA's figures claimed 18,000 deaths on the nation's highways attributable to drunk driving. The Times found that only about 5,000 of these involved a drunk driver causing the death of a sober driver, passenger or pedestrian. (Research by other groups, such as "Responsibility in DUI Laws, Inc.", indicate the figure is actually under 3,000.) 5,000. A fraction of the number being used by the government and political pressure groups like MADD.

Despite this irritating little truth, MADD, law enforcement and federal and state governments continue to use the same false statistics to justify the passage of unfair and unconstitutional DUI laws.

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