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Drinking and Driving

The Role Of Alcohol In Road Accidents, Prevalence And Patterns Of Drinking And Driving, Deterrence

The automobile age brought with it unprecedented prosperity and freedom of movement, but motor vehicles have also caused the deaths and injuries of millions of people. From the beginning the abuse of alcohol has been universally viewed as one of the major causes of vehicular carnage, with severe punishments being deemed the best way of dealing with the self-indulgent reprobates responsible.

According to the sociologist Joseph Gusfield, noted for his work on alcohol in American society, behind all legislation aimed at curtailing drinking and driving is the image of "the killer drunk," the morally flawed character who has committed more than an ordinary traffic violation. Unlike the social drinker, who knows his limits and respects the law, the drinking driver is a villain who threatens the lives of the innocent through indulgence in his own pleasure. In this legislation, unlike other kinds of traffic law, it is the behavior itself, the hostile, antisocial menace, which is singled out for special disapproval. From this perspective, the enforcement of drinking-driving legislation is as much a matter of public morality as it is of public convenience and safety (Gusfield).

The specter of the killer drunk is the key image that animates "the dominant paradigm," to use the term coined by H. Laurence Ross, another American sociologist who has done more than any other scholar to elucidate, from an international perspective, the causes and prevention of drinking and driving (Ross, 1982, 1992). The dominant paradigm understands that there is a safe drinking level for the great mass of responsible drivers, differentiated from the levels regularly achieved by the small minority of reckless "drunken drivers." The problem, in fact, is not "drinking and driving" at all, but "drunken driving." The dominance of this paradigm in the United States is one reason why the term drunken driving is used so often there, in contrast to most European nations and Australia, where "drinking and driving" or "drink-driving" are the more popular terms.

How one defines the problem is fundamentally important in determining how one thinks about responses. The dominant paradigm calls for severe punishments administered through the criminal justice system. Not only are such punishments fitting, they are capable of deterring further offending, especially if they are backed by rigorous police enforcement. To the extent that the problem is construed in terms of the pathetic drunk rather than the cold-blooded killer, proponents of the dominant paradigm are also comfortable with offering treatment to offenders, provided such programs are not used to evade punishment.

Another way of viewing the problem is through what Laurence Ross calls "the challenging paradigm." Those who think within this framework are uncomfortable about drawing a rigid line between dangerous drunks and social drinkers, although they recognize that heavy drinkers are a critical part of the problem. Their inspiration is the public health perspective, which is not primarily concerned with righting the moral balance of the world but with minimizing alcohol-related harms. Adherents of the challenging paradigm view alcohol-related accidents as the product of the conjunction of the social institutions of transportation and recreation, rather than as a manifestation of moral dereliction. All developed societies rely, to an increasing extent, on private vehicles for all daily functions including recreation, while the consumption of alcohol is accorded an honored place in after-work camaraderie, weekend leisure, and business lunches. Large taverns with even larger car parks are built in the suburbs, and drinking to intoxication remains a core recreational activity for large numbers of people.

If the problem is institutions, perhaps the solutions lie in modifying the way these institutions operate. The challenging paradigm has a place for the criminal justice system, especially if the emphasis is on the general deterrence of the whole driving population. However, they also look beyond the criminal justice system to alcohol and transportation policy, exploring the utility of such measures as reducing alcohol availability or making vehicles or roadside hazards more "forgiving" of the errors of the drinking driver.

In the remainder of this discussion we explore many of the issues raised by the dominant and challenging paradigms, and assess the scientific evidence for the claims made.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law