Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Legal limits on driver distress and fatigue, too?

There's a lot in the Wellington local and regional papers about deaths caused by drunk drivers. And I am saddened to read of the deaths of innocent people, of course.

My apologies if the timing of this blog bothers people (one of the deaths was a well known teacher in my area), but you have a choice to not continue reading.

This has probably been covered by worthy libertarians before. I don't mean to be disingenuous, but it’s a new thought for me. No need to read on if this is old news – the revelation has only just hit me (I'm a bit slow sometimes) after reading Lindsay Mitchell's thought-provoking blog on whether we need to look beyond penalties in addressing the deaths caused by drunk drivers http://lindsaymitchell.blogspot.com/2009/09/drinkdriving-and-tougher-penalties.html.

The lead headline in the Kapiti Observer this morning screams, "Young driver hits 1105mcg". Which, I confess, means nothing to me other than it is a number that is somewhat over what is the legal breath alcohol limit. Specifically, the article says:
A recidivist drink driver recorded over seven times the legal youth breath alcohol limit when tested......

Police stopped the 19-year-old Paraparaumu Beach woman on Maclean Street about 3.30am.

The legal driving limit for a person aged 20 or under was 150mcg, though she would face the more serious charge of being over the adult limit of 400mcg.

Senior Sergeant Alasdair Macmillan said it was an "excessively high" reading, "and, given her age, a major concern.  This is not the first time she had come to the attention of the police for drink driving."
From the (appallingly written) article, I can only deduce that the problem was that the young driver had a substance (in this case, alcohol) in her system. There is no mention of bad driving, no destruction of property, no lives were taken or recklessly endangered. The crime was having the wrong amount of a substance in her system while driving a car. The fact that there is a "legal limit" suggests it is possible to have this substance in your blood, even while driving, and not commit a crime. Without a breathaliser, there is no way to tell if we are breaking the law.

Yes, I know the preferred, acceptable (knee jerk) reaction is drunk driving has to be illegal because the chance of causing an accident rises dramatically when you drink. But, as I said earlier, we have a legal limit, so clearly a little bit of alcohol in our body is deemed to not be dangerous. Why is a legal framework is dealing with chance? The law should deal with a person's actions as they damage a person or property. Leave the issue of "chance" to insurance companies to determine as their competitive point of difference. The effect of the substance in the system is something that is perhaps more relevant for the sentencing judge, acknowledging that there is enough evidence to suggest that a person's driving ability may be impaired by substances, but that there are many other factors that can cause a person to drive poorly, such as fatigue or emotional distress.  Will there come a point where the law imposes legal fatigue or distress limits?

You had a choice as to whether or not you read this blog, do please do not post a comment calling me insensitive because your mother/brother/friend etc was killed by a drunk driver. Any person responsible for killing someone else is guilty of manslaughter or murder and should be punished accordingly. My issue is that we are criminalising and punishing people because of a level of substance in their body, not because of a true crime that harms/kills people or damages property. Anyone driving is capable of causing an accident, whether they are drunk or sober. Some drivers can drive with substances in their body and not cause any accident at all. How can we make a judgement call through law that they, and the people around them, were just "lucky"?


Lindsay said...

Should a man with a predictable propensity for domestic violence when inebriated be charged for getting drunk whether or not he beats the missus?

Mark.V. said...

To answer Lindsay, just being drunk should not be an offence. Neither should driving while drunk. However the penalty for causing an accident should be severe.

PC said...

You make a good point, both of you.

May I pinch some of this?

KG said...

It's always seemed utterly wrong and unjust to me to punish people for the potential harm their actions could cause.
If we accept this then at what point does something become none of the government's damn business? The answer to that--of course--is that accepting the principle of punishment for possible harm gives the government and bureaucrats unlimited power.
I'd sooner tolerate a certain level of harm in society than accept that.

Sus said...

" .. there are many other factors that can cause a person to drive poorly, such as fatigue or emotional distress. Will there come a point where the law imposes legal fatigue or distress limits?"

Fair point.

(And I was down your way over the wknd & knew people who knew the cyclist killed at Te Horo. Small world).