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Drunk Driving: A Victimless Crime

by Charles Platt

I wonder if anyone else agrees that drunk driving is a victimless crime. A conviction merely affirms that a person was more likely than average to hit someone or something. Well, all kinds of people are more likely to do that, such as the elderly, or people who simply don’t have an aptitude for driving.

State laws used to recognize this, more or less, by allowing police to make a judgment call about impairment, based on their observations. But that wasn’t good enough for Candy Lightner, whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. In the wearying tradition of family members who want to make the death of a loved one seem more meaningful by inconveniencing everybody else, Lightner started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The name of this brilliant campaign guaranteed its success. Who could possibly disagree with Mothers (that most sacred category of human being) who wanted to protect their children from alcohol-crazed hit-and-run maniacs? Alas, it ended up criminalizing the people whom it was supposed to protect.

Young people themselves are the most likely to drink and drive. So, MADD’s answer was to stop them from drinking–even including the ones who didn’t own cars and didn’t have driver licenses. Of course the federal government lacked constitutional authority to enforce this, so it simply threatened to take away a percentage of highway finds if the states didn’t capitulate. Such coercion would be familiar to any mafia boss: “Nice little highway you have here. Be a shame if something happened to it. Maybe you should think about raising the legal drinking age to 21.” Thus young people who had been 18, 19, or 20 at the time suddenly had to stop drinking, or become criminals. Once they were 21 they could start drinking again.

Does anyone imagine that this actually worked? I have never yet met any teenagers who aren’t able to obtain alcohol if they want to. College presidents are aware of this, which may have been why more than 100 of them got together in 2008 and demanded that the legal drinking age be lowered. No doubt they were weary of trying to enforce a prohibition that is unenforceable. Of course, their plea was ignored.

Candy Lightner subsequently quit from MADD. Her demands for salary increases had been rejected, which may or may not have been a factor. In 1994 she became a spokesperson for the American Beverage Institute, a lobbying group which represents some liquor companies. She argued against a further tightening of the law regarding illegal levels of blood alcohol, stating that MADD had become “neo-prohibitionist.” Apparently even she realized that the juggernaut that she created had gotten out of hand.

Too late, Candy. Young people lost some more of their dwindling rights, and police departments gained a great new tool for raising revenue. Lives have been disrupted in the process, since people convicted of DUIs lose their licenses in many states, and this can be catastrophic for someone who lives alone in a rural area. Meanwhile, millions of teenagers have gained criminal convictions as a result of doing something that is legal for the majority of the population.

All this in the cause of preventing a crime that might happen.


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