Stop drunk driving? Sure. But sober drivers kill too.

Russell Sadler

The Oregon State Police arrested 23 percent more drunk drivers over the long holiday weekend than they did last year.

This is the time of year “authority figures” sagely warn you not to drive drunk. It is good advice. About half the fatal traffic collisions in Oregon involve drinking drivers. That also means about half the highway fatalities are caused by sober drivers. We have a peculiar double standard when it comes to highway fatalities. We are indignant over senseless deaths caused by drunk drivers. We are less indignant over senseless deaths caused by sober drivers.

There is no Mothers against Sober Drivers, no Children of Adult Sober Drivers, no Students against Sober Drivers, no Sober Drivers Anonymous. There are no public service announcements on television urging people to not to drive sober, no campaign slogans like Friends Do Not Let Friends Drive Sober.

Drunk drivers who kill get the front page. Sober drivers who kill get the second section or the weekend traffic accident roundup on Mondays despite mounting evidence that driving when you are tired, under the influence of medication or yacking on your cell phone is just as dangerous as drinking and driving.

Despite a dramatic reduction in deaths attributed to drunk driving, it is still drunks who still get the attention of politicians. Most states allow .10 blood alcohol before a driver is considered impaired. Oregon is one of 13 states with a .08 blood alcohol limit and the Legislature has resisted efforts to reduce it to .04.

Fatalities from drunk driving dropped from estimates as high as 70 percent of all highway fatalities in the mid-1980s to around 50 percent today. Chronic alcoholics are now the largest cause of drunk driving collisions and it is clear “tougher” laws do not discourage problem drinkers from driving even when they have lost their licenses. Whatever the solution to this problem may be, it is not reducing the allowable blood alcohol standard to unrealistic levels and making potential felons out of anyone who has a drink dining out. Oregon’s traffic fatality problem is caused more by lax licensing than liquor.

Oregon is widely known as a state that lets anybody drive -- and we do. The law requiring formal driver training or 100 hours behind the wheel with another adult prior to licensing is limited to those under 18. Budget cuts stripped driver training from most school districts. Some school districts now contract with private driver training businesses to meet students at school because insurance companies require formal driver training before teenagers can get discounted automobile insurance.

But for most Oregonians over 17, getting a driver’s license means passing a brief written exam and a short road test that no longer even requires parallel parking skills.

Once licensed, this ticket to freedom and autonomy can be renewed by mail for a token fee every few years with little further evaluation of the driver’s abilities until you reach an age when the folks art DMV invite you to renew your license in person so they can see if you are still capable of driving down the road. Informally, it’s called the “dodder test.”

Few lawmakers will publicly discuss the most effective solution to traffic fatalities -- periodic driver re-examination. Drivers see so many bad examples around them that they develop bad habits that last a lifetime if not reformed by periodic re-examination -- driving while impatient, driving while distracted, driving aggressively. You see examples of these bad habits around you every day and eventually you adopt those habits. This is the stuff of road rage and drive-by shootings.

Oregon will get more results lowering fatalities by requiring periodic reexamination of all drivers and concentrating enforcement efforts on sober drivers who are driving while they are tired or under the influence of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. But none of that will be popular.

Regrettably, legislators find it easier and less threatening to fulminate about drunk drivers rather than require more realistic driver training standards and periodic re-examinations and continuing driver education for careless, tired and otherwise sober drivers who are responsible for about 50 percent of the kills on Oregon’s increasingly crowded highways. You are just as dead if you are killed by a sober driver and your family grieves just as much as any family that is the victim of a drunk driver.

I will let others warn you about drunk driving. My public service message this holiday season is watch out for sober drivers. The life you save may be your own and I cherish every one of my readers. Best wishes for a healthy and prosperous new year.

Columnist Russell Sadler is also an Oregon-licensed driving instructor.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    Ain't it the truth! I have one rule I follow,never make anyone put on their brakes unnecessarily for me.

    That means pay attention, use your turn signal and don't run stop signs/red lights.

  • RayCeeYa (unverified)

    After three accidents, stone sober for all of them, I've come to the conclusion that I shouldn't be driving at all if I can help it. I'm a horrible driver. I'm inattentive, easily distracted, and most of my friends refuse to ride with me after their first trip. Some of us just weren't meant to operate motor vehicles.

    It doesn't help much that I hate driving anyway. So today I use public transportation, or I bike, and I don't own a car. I save a lot of money on insurance that way. I doubt I could afford it after my accidents.

  • (Show?)

    Great post.

    I'm a criminal defense lawyer. A large part of my current practice is felony traffic offenses. Based on that, I can say with assurance that there is very little that will deter people from driving if they want to drive. My firsthand experience with the criminal justice system teaches me that no amount of license- and vehicle-related sanctions short of actual incarceration will keep a determined driver off the road. But it would make us a police state (not that we have any money for state police) to conduct mandatory roadblocks or other such intrusive measure to check driving privileges. So how do we go after the chronic traffic offenders in a way other than locking them up and throwing away the key, or making all of us suffer for a few people's crimes?

  • pat malach (unverified)

    Excellent post, Russell.

    Parents are fond of telling their teenagers that driving is a privilege not a right. But given how easy it is to get a driver's license in this country -- and how difficult it is to lose one -- the reality is that driving is practically a right.

    The solution is to turn that situation around. Make it very difficult to get a license and very easy to lose one.

    Make driving a real privilege for a select few who are willing to go through the extensive (but cheap) classes, training and testing involved with getting a license.

    I'm talking about weeding out up to 50% or more of people currently on the road.

    Put the rest on mass transit.

    The market forces of increased demand on public/private mass transportation options would provide the economic incentive for a network of mass transportation that could be effficient and integrated enough to handle the job and deliver people to their doorstep.

    A limited nummber of legitimate drivers on the road would make it much easier to find and punish those who don't belong. It would also make it easier to hold the legitimate drivers to a new higher standard of competence.

    Think of the money spent on individual insurance, gas, etc., etc. that could be redirected into this type of syetm.

    Not to mention all of the senseless deaths and suffering that could be avoided.

    I expect all of this to happen when Hell freezes over.

    In the meantime, "try not to be a selfish ----!" will have to suffice.

  • (Show?)

    Russell has a point but missed the mark with his solutions, IMO.

    Another way to look at "only 50%" is that driving drunk still causes as many deaths as all other causes put together. Perhaps the efforts that got us from 70% to 50% have hit a point of diminishing effectiveness but that says to me we need to look at other approaches to preventing drunk driving, not just dismiss the issue. We also have to remember that if we abandon campaigns against drunk driving we could go back to 70%.

    The proposal to address the other half of the problem with driver tests, while involving huge expense and inconvenience, is not likely to be very effective. Except in the case of young drivers, it doesn't appear to be lack of basic driving ability that causes most of those other crashes. In particular, I don't believe there are any statistics linking lack of paralell parking skills with traffic fatalities. Is there any data that indicates that we were safer drivers back in the days when we did do periodic driver testing? As Russell noted, there are studies that indicate driving tired and talking on the phone are dangerous activities and the newspapers regularly report fatalities from other distractions.

    No one's going to talk on their cell phone, eat at the wheel, fiddle with their CD player or fall asleep during a driving skills test. Those are, however, apparently the kinds of things that lead to many of those other fatalities.

    I'd love to see driver ed available again in the schools at no cost for new drivers. I agree that periodic reminders might be helpful for more experienced drivers. Perhaps a public education campaign aimed at those other issues might be somewhat effective for adults. I know that since those studies have come out I've changed my behavior with respect to talking on my cell phone and driving while I'm tired.

  • JTT (unverified)

    You can now annonymously report unsafe drivers to the DMV, and they will mandate the person come in for an eye screening, written test, and behind the wheel.

    Almost anyone can report (police, doctors, family, neighbors, friends), but DMV does such a horrible job of advertising the one knows about it, but now you do.

    Happy (Safe) New Years!

  • (Show?)

    JTT, the link you provide says this: DMV will not accept anonymous reports. You can request that your name be kept confidential; however, the form requires your name, address and an original signature.

    Still a good program, though.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I worked in the alcohol/drug treatment field for a number of years. I have to say, more laws in that arena will have very little if any affect upon the rates of drunk driving. But as Doretta sagely points out, there is no basis to believe that reducing the "teeth" in the current laws will leave things status quo - most likely the rates would increase again.

    I briefly toyed with the idea of starting a MADD group in my town in the early 1990's. When I got to know that group, I found the culture was vindictive versus educational or corrective, so I left them and moved on.

    I agree with Russ that "impaired" driving goes way beyond alcohol and drugs. I also agree that periodic retesting might well be a good idea. I would further argue that anyone that enters a DMV office to get or renew a license that has their cell phone ring or be used while in the office should get their license denied on the spot. I have to drive a lot on my job - about 24,000 miles a year - and in recent years the number of close calls where someone comes close to hitting me has increased. In EVERY case, it was someone talking on a cell phone.

    In fact, it happened yesterday (but wasn't work related for once). To get into my dead end neighborhood, you have to take a left turn on a State Highway. Due to bridge construction, the lanes are narrow. Due to weather, some of the paint on the lines is worn off. So, the left turn lane is more or less in the center of the road, with only a double yellow line to the right of the turn lane visible. Well, yesterday, a fellow on a cell phone comes up to this area while I'm waiting for traffic to clear for my left turn. He is talking away on the cell phone, and follows the double yellow line, which puts him on course to do a head-on with me. I have no where to go with traffic to the right and left. Finally, this guy realizes that I'm in front of him, and jerks his car back into his lane of traffic nearly hitting the car that was behind him (but to his right in the correct lane). He literally didn't see me until the last minute due to be distracted with the cell phone.

    I wonder if laws would reduce cell phone use in autos like I wonder if any further laws would reduce drunk driving. Both are dangerous - but would laws matter?

  • LT (unverified)

    For many years I had a weekend job as a product demonstrator in a big box retailer, and often had to park on the edge of the parking lot. No one should be allowed to use a cell phone in a parking lot like that. It is bad enough when a full size pickup or SUV is going forward as the driver looks sideways for a parking place. Add a cellphone in that mix and it is dangerous. I always dreaded walking across the parking lot as a short person not on eye level with those drivers of large vehicles, esp. after work when I had to dodge lots of vehicles.

    One thing that has changed socially over the years, I have noticed, is the general public acceptance of someone at a social event saying "sorry, when I drive I don't consume a drop of alcohol". I am old enough to remember when such a statement was deemed "spoiling the party" or some such nonsense.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    But it would make us a police state (not that we have any money for state police) to conduct mandatory roadblocks or other such intrusive measure to check driving privileges.

    A police state like the European democracies that use mandatory sobriety checks and impose harsh penalties (in some cases jail) for the first DUI? We can certainly argue whether mandatory sobriety checks are a good thing or not, and whether or not they violate the 1st Amendment, but puhleeze leave off the police-state scare tactics. Driving is a privilege, not a right.

  • jack (unverified)

    Here's the deal -

    <h1>1. DUI laws are NOT based on public safety but rather on how much $$$ can the government make off you before there is mass revolt. They even make money by taxing your auto insurance when it goes up. The offense used to be called "Driving While Intoxicated". Now it's "Driving While Impaired". The slogan used to be "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk". Now it's "Friends Don't Let Friends Drink and Drive".</h1> <h1>2. The current limit on most DUI laws exceeds the measurement error of the measurement device. In layman's terms, if you've had ANYTHING to drink, the breath tester will give a false positive [above the limit] 1 out of 3 times at the mandated .1 level. Think about that. Think about how you would prove your innocence.</h1> <h1>3. Studies of the causes of traffic fatalities are blatantly biased and incorrect [type II error]. They're even including statistics from incidents where alcohol was found, even if the driver didn't have anything to drink at all! Here's an example to put it in perspective - In the summer at the beach, sales of ice cream increase. At the same time, deaths by drowning increase. Investigation shows that half of all people drowning either had ice cream or were with someone who did. We can correlate the sales of ice cream and drownings extremely well, showing that as sales increase, so do drownings. Therefore - ice cream causes drowning. THAT'S the logic being used. And THAT'S why is all about the $$$ not safety.</h1>
  • David (unverified)

    Whatever happened to "accidents happen"? Turning people in because you deem them unsafe and subject them to tests as one comment suggests is scary, and rediculous. Flip that suggestion, and how would you feel having to drop your life/schedule because you "accidently" cut someone off?

    It's basic math; there are more people which means more cars and drivers. Most people are in a hurry and not paying full attention. The logical deduction will be more accidents, and therefore deaths. It all comes down to Natural selection, and paying attention. Either that, or everyone calm down and quit trying to place blame.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    WOuld appreciate if jack would provide some references that I can check, particularly for his statement about the measurement error.

  • Hal Turner (unverified)

    If you read the newspaper accounts carefully, you'll observe a huge number of serious drunken driving accidents are caused by those with "hispanic heritage" names. Why is that?

  • Jim (unverified)

    Russell has a good point about the .08% breath test. It's too loww a standard. One can have a single beer at a tavern and if stopped a few blocks away, could easily blow that amount or more if the beer was consumed just before leaving.

    IMO, anyone who drinks at a bar or tavern, even if it's just one or two drinks, is risking thier drivers license and thousands of dollars in fines and court costs. That's insane.

  • (Show?)

    Mostly, accidents don't just happen. Which is why they are actually crashes, not accidents. Almost all traffic crashes have someone doing something stupid -- speeding, being distracted, etc.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that about 90% of all crashes had the driver distracted in the three seconds before the crash -- on a cell phone, dealing with something else, sleepy, etc.

    Crashes are preventable. Europe and Australia have cut their traffic fatalities in half over the past decade. In the U.S., we've pretended they're unpreventable accidents.

  • 17yearoldwithanopinion (unverified)

    Heres my 2 cents worth. First lower the drinking age to 18 what happens when you do that is a decrease in teenagers who go out to parties get wasted and are scared to call their parents to give them a ride so they drive home drunk. Most nations have a drinking age of 18 in some cases 16. In portugal the drinking age is 16 and the age to drive is 18. So what happens is that people have had two years to drink and understand its effects before they start driving. Increasing the driving age to 18 isnt a half bad idea. I am a high schooler driver who drives safely becuase I went though drivers ed, not just the basic but also private lessons afterward, and my parents forced me to have more then 100 hours plus drivers ed before I took my drivers test and I had to wait till I waws 17. All those factors help me drive safer now. Also in Portugal the use of cell phones is illegal they can only be used if they are handless headsets and the use of one if caught is a massive fine and many times lose of drivers licesnce. Also when you get in a accident there you are required to don a reflective vest when you exit your car to do whatever you need so its easier for other cars to see you and avoid you.

  • MCT (unverified)

    Excellent post. It is unfortunate that these days everyone needs a law in place in order to act sensibly. Yesterday there was a low-speed accident in which someone died, at a NE residential corner with no stop signs. Now.... Who can we blame? Was anyone impaired? Speeding? Too old to drive? Overtired? Over-aggressive? On a cell phone? Is it the city's fault?

    Typical of our tunnel- vision times, it seems that if there is no sign saying stop or yield, then it is legal and thus reasonable to blow right through the intersection without checking to see if one might be putting themselves or others at risk. (And this can be a metaphor for many other aspects of life in the new millennium.)

    I think there may be one more factor that causes sober-driving accidents..... over-confidence brought on by the vehicles themselves. New models are so comfortable, sound-buffered, and filled with safely features, handle so well, and are so quick from the gate, & stop on a quarter (inflation). Sitting behind the wheel of one of these mechanical chariots it is easy to be lulled into the illusion that this car is invincible, ergo I am invincible and need not be concerned, or give any courtesy to the guy behind me whose 20 year old truck needs an extra 30 feet to stop. Drive down any road or freeway and you can feel the impatient hubris emanating from behind the tinted windows of these high tech road warriors. I see more than a few of these drivers doing some risky and rude maneuvers in traffic, because they CAN....but they never look back to see the stunned reactions of fear and confusion they leave in their wake! Or do they?

  • Josh (unverified)

    Russell must have consumed something wierd because this article is full of urban myths:

    1) You can get to .08 with one or two drinks. Yes, if you weigh 70 pounds

    2) Tougher laws don't reduce traffic deaths. Uhh..actually that's exactly what they've done, although considering you have to get caught FOUR times for DUII within 10 years to go to prison for DUII how "tough" can that be?

    3) That we have more to be worried about from sober driver than drunks. That's like the guy who tells you he drives "better" when he is "relaxed" with a few drinks.

    Sorry but this is just plain DENIAL. I'd invite Russell to the next four times I'm called out because some innocent person is dead because some 3-time loser who's gotten away with DUII because they are white and middle class wipes out one, two people or even an entire family. It happens all over Oregon every year.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I support measuring impairment, not blood alcohol levels. With our wondrous technological abilities, it should be a snap to put together an accurate portable driving impairment test. If someone fails for any knowable, preventable reason [alcohol, drugs, fatigue, bad eyesight, senility] they should be held equally accountable, possibly in proportion to the level of impairment. If someone is impaired because they suffered a stroke while driving, for instance, they would have their impairment excused.

  • (Show?)

    Josh -- you make good points. Can you address the above question about whether the machine that tests the air you blow out of your lungs can actually measure how much alchohol is in your bloodstream -- to a hundredths of a percent level of precision?

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