Friday, September 2, 2011

Looking at the reality of alcohol related accidents

There was a Letter to the Editor in today's Post & Courier, which would appear to be written in response to our friend Diedreich von Lehe's Supreme Court decision in the Mt. Pleasant video camera case (Town of Mt. Pleasant v. Roberts). The title of the letter? Get Tough on DUI.

According to a recent Post and Courier article, alcohol is involved in most South Carolina traffic deaths. In fact, we rank 49th among states as regards alcohol-related deaths. What are we doing about these disturbing figures? Our politicians (lots of whom are lawyers) are actually making it harder to catch and convict drunk drivers.

In the meantime, we have a scary situation where South Carolina families are sharing the roads with an increasing number of drunk drivers. How many families have to suffer a needless loss due to a drunk driver before we take this problem seriously?

Pretty scary stuff, huh? What, pray tell, are we to do? We can start by being honest about the actual situation. Is driving while under the influence a serious problem that can lead to tragic consequences? Absolutely. But if one looks objectively at the issue, you can see that there's some puffing going on. First, NHTSA and the SC DPS both have adopted a definition of "alcohol related accident" which is incredibly overbroad when it comes to alcohol's role. Under their definition, an "alcohol related accident" is one in which any person involved (driver, passenger, pedestrian) has a detectable amount of alcohol. A "detectable amount" means .01 or above. So just how slanted does that make the statistics that result in SC being the 49th state in terms of preventing alcohol related accidents? Why would the state rig the numbers like that? That's easy: money. As in grant money from the G and state funding considerations come budget time.

A fellow criminal attorney friend of ours (Hattip McCulloch) has been gathering the State's statistics on accidents and the actual numbers reveal that maybe the fears of a DUI-caused accident epidemic are not supported by the data. For instance, the official SC DPS stats we've seen for total accidents show that DUI related accidents (323) in Horry County in 2009 comprised 4.4% of total accidents (7,360). For 2010, the number of DUI-related accidents (339) was just 4.6% of the total accidents (7,427). (The DUI-related numbers were obtained from this SunNews article).

Now, those numbers are not meant to make light of the serious consequences involved for society as a whole when someone gets behind the wheel while too impaired to operate a vehicle. But what they do show is that maybe the outcry by folks like Mr. Sadler who wrote the letter quoted from above need to seperate fact from fiction. The VAST amount of traffic enforcement in this state is directed at DUIs. From Sober or Slammer, to The Heat is On, to Highways or Dieways, the state of South Carolina and the Federal Government have been funding the hell out of DUI enforcement. In making DUI enforcement a priority, we have also incentivized the enforcement of DUIs. In other words, cops make rank, get awards and recognition and departments get equipment based on their DUI numbers. When you incentivize conduct, you corrupt the process. Just ask Enron. Folks like Mr. Sadler need to understand not only that fact, but that it also should not be EASY to convict someone of this or any other crime.

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