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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

DWIs in Minnesota -- what's missing from this story?

Posted by: Hammer / 7:48 AM

Sunday's Star Tribune had a front page article on DWIs:

It's a milestone that has Minnesota state troopers, judges, experts and advocates either patting themselves on the back or shaking their heads. When the clock strikes midnight tonight, 2006 will be a record year for drunken-driving arrests.

For the first time, Minnesota is on a pace to arrest more than 40,000 motorists for impaired driving. Chalk up the tally to better enforcement or cultural apathy. But two decades after the "don't drink and drive" mantra started raising awareness and lowering alcohol-related fatalities, some say it's time to address the problem with new technology.

"People are becoming anesthetized to being told not to drink and drive, and it's going right over their heads," said Lynne Goughler, a Minnesota policy adviser for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "We've hit a plateau and we're stagnating. The next thing to do is take the cars out of their hands."

Despite the length of the article, the Strib never gets around to mentioning the one huge, recent change in Minnesota's drunk driving law -- lowering the legal limit to .08. Some officers are quick to point to the change in the law as a factor in the increased arrest rate:

Minnesota saw a dramatic increase in DUI arrests last year. With increased DUI enforcement over the holiday weeks, adding to the number of drunk driver arrests.

Rochester Police Officer Bill Verdick said New Years Eve is one of the busiest nights for disorderly conduct. As far as the higher number of arrests, Verdick pointed to the Minnesota's first full year with a lower blood alcohol level as a main reason. Bill Verdick says, "We as police officers arrest that we know are impaired drivers, and a lot of those have fallen into the point 08 to point 1 level and that I'm sure has increased the number of arrests officers have made."

Why are there more DWI arrests in Minnesota this year? Because we've defined drunk driving done. Want to reduce the number of DWI arrests in Minnesota? Increase the legal limit. Heck, if you increase the legal BAC to .16, we'd see a dramatic decrease in DWI arrests.

The legal limit does not drive individual behavior. Most people decide for themselves whether they are okay to drive. Most people make the right decision most of the time. Some people make the wrong decision nearly every time. This is plain from the state's 2005 report (PDF).

In 2005, there were 559 traffic fatalities in Minnesota. 379 of those 559 traffic deaths were drivers. Nearly all (92%) of those drivers were tested for alcohol. The majority (61%) were completely sober at the time of death. A large minority (33%) were very drunk at the time of death -- .10 or higher. 22 drivers (6% of total deaths) had some alcohol in their system. 17 of them had a BAC between .01 and .07. Five had a BAC over .07 and below .10.

Very drunk drivers kill themselves and others at an alarming rate. Very drunk drivers are the least likely to decide not to drive because of a change in the legal limit. Rather than spending resources arresting more people, we should be allocating resources to keeping the most dangerous drivers off the roads for good.

The good news in all this is that while arrests are up, overall traffic fatalities are way down:



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