St. Patrick’s Day may be one of the bigger drinking days in America, but drunk driving is a daily occurrence in cities and towns all over the globe. No matter what you call it — impaired, intoxicated, or drunk driving — it’s a very serious subject that Local Motors gives a lot of thought to as a company focused on the future of transportation. We not only want to improve the automotive experience, but we intend to deliver smarter, safer, and more sustainable mobility options to the market.
As such, it’s my view that one of the solutions to drunk driving would be greater access to autonomous vehicles. I realize this might appear easy for us to suggest when we have an interest in building and selling vehicle innovations, but I offer the data and the stories below to make the case.
First off, it’s important to understand how big of a problem drunk driving is. The CDC reports that on average, 30 people die every day from alcohol-involved accidents in the United States. Technically, “alcohol-involved” doesn’t mean alcohol was a definitive cause, but it does mean that at least one of the drivers in an automotive collision had at least a trace of alcohol in their body. For a little context, in 2014, approximately 90 people died every day from all automobile collisions, so it’s reasonable to say that drunk driving represents about one-third of all automotive deaths.
We’re starting to listen
The good news is that people are listening to the public service announcements, and automotive manufacturers have built safer vehicles resulting in fewer fatalities. But don’t celebrate just yet. NHTSA has reported that in 2005 there were 13,582 fatalities involving alcohol-involved vehicle crashes with an average fatality rate of 0.45 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
In 2014, we saw 9,967 fatalities with a fatality rate of 0.33 deaths per 100 million VMT. That’s a significant improvement, but about 10,000 people still die every year due to drunk driving. Considering this is over a ten-year period, we could be doing better. Let’s dig into that.
One interesting piece of data in the same NHTSA report focuses on the blood alcohol content (BAC) greater than 0.8g/dL, which is what many states recognize as being intoxicated. It indicates that millennials are doing a better job than their other demographic counterparts for not being involved in alcohol-related fatalities. It’s plausible that younger drivers have heeded warnings about drunk driving and perhaps have embraced designated drivers more than other age groups. Or, it could be that they spend more time sobering up on Facebook and Snapchat before getting behind the wheel — we can’t know entirely.
It’s also worth noting since Uber’s launch in 2009 that access to affordable ride-sharing services has become second-nature to many people seeking a designated driver on-demand. However, this data should reinforce that while overall drunk driving fatalities have decreased, intoxicated driving isn’t isolated to any one age group or gender. Drunk driving affects all of us, even if you don’t consume alcohol.
An important factor in this data is the idea that overall vehicle safety has improved. In fact, 2011 represented a 62-year low in motor vehicle deaths. This could be attributed to greater safety regulations, improved driver behavior, improved vehicle safety equipment, or a combination thereof. Nevertheless, 32,000 vehicle deaths are 32,000 too many. This is something everyone in the automotive industry is working to improve.
We all pick up the tab for drunk driving. Between the costs for law enforcement, adjudication, insurance premiums, quality of life losses, property damage, and productivity losses, we paid $132 billion just in 2009. Given the modest reductions in alcohol-involved fatalities, we’re still looking at a $100 billion annual problem.
Going beyond the stats
I reached out to my contacts on Twitter and Facebook seeking to interview people who have been involved in a DUI. To my surprise, two drivers and two lawyers responded with an interest to answer my questions. In Arizona, we have earned a reputation for being one of the toughest states when it comes to drunk driving enforcement. Given the social stigma of being charged with a DUI, I’ve honored their anonymity as requested.
“CJ” shared with me, “I was 18 and foolish,” when he was leaving from a friend’s going-away party. He offered no excuse for why he did it, but he’s painfully aware it happened.
Another anonymous contributor “J” indicated that he knew very intimately the situation that happened to two of his friends. He shared that his friend thought he was unfairly targeted by law enforcement on New Year’s Eve when he left a bar while making sure to drive safely. Once stopped, the officer alleged that the tire touched the center line, demonstrating one of the signs of impairment. Another one of “J’s” friends was speeding on a cold night on one of Phoenix’s highways while acting as a designated driver for others. After a lengthy process, the court eventually ruled in favor of his friend and he was left with a massive bill for his legal representation.
The lesser-known reality from these instances is the hard costs to defend one’s innocence against the state. Like I mentioned earlier, Arizona is known for its zero-tolerance for drunk driving. Prior to conviction, people face mandatory jail time in addition to a suspended license. Missing work and hiring an attorney can be costly, but it can be much more expensive if a court finds you guilty. No matter what the determination is of your guilt, you’ll need to write some big checks.
Shannon Peters, an attorney at the Phoenix-based Allen Law Firm, explained to me some of the scenarios she has seen. The costs to retain counsel can vary significantly based on one’s situation.
“The cost of a DUI defense attorney for a regular DUI ranges from about $3,500-$10,000, depending on the seriousness of the charges and the experience of the defense attorney,” Peters told me.
If you’re found guilty, you may be responsible for costs for jail time, mandatory assessments, ignition interlock (and its monthly fees), and any additional costs not covered by insurance via other involved parties. She also estimated that approximately 10 percent of clients have injured others from their activities. In those cases, the driver faces more serious criminal charges.
Liz Harris-Wylde, an attorney with Scottsdale-based Wylde Law Group, offered additional insight. Following serious traffic offenses like a DUI, most states require drivers to carry a special insurance certificate known as an SR-22 before being granted the right to drive legally. Drivers who require an SR-22 can expect their insurance premiums to double or even triple. The overall costs will vary for many offenders, but suggested these baselines, “A DUI could cost from $4,000 or $5,000 on the low end to over $15,000 or $20,000 on the high end if no victim is involved,” said Harris-Wylde.
Well beyond the fines and cost of retaining counsel, there are additional costs for drivers who have been allegedly drinking and driving. Driver’s license suspensions are required to some extent, and it’s likely for most people that will interfere commuting to and from work. Both attorneys reiterated the point that it can take approximately six months until one’s driving privileges can be reinstated. Considering your freedom hangs in the balance, the stress goes on for months along with a damaged driving record to remind you years later.
Another factor to think about is the potential for greater financial loss. For people in certain licensed professions, they will need to report to their licensing board about their arrest. As you can imagine, this could result in termination for any number of reasons.
Self-driving vehicles may be the answer
I’ve heard statements about “drinking responsibly” on TV and radio as long as I can remember. I even recall the MADD and DARE groups attending my middle school with some awkward, yet important, message to not use drugs or drink and drive.
Even with all this knowledge and improvements with ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, nearly 10,000 people die every year in an alcohol-involved accident. Is it that Uber or Lyft aren’t convenient enough? Is it that surge pricing can actually compel people to chance it on their own? I don’t know, but the answer isn’t a bigger truck or more airbags.
The notion of a self-driving car, bus or van might seem a little unusual at first. However, it could be a perfect, always-on, low-cost system to transport people home so they can sleep away their night of partying. Then in the morning (or afternoon), they can summon this type of autonomous vehicle to pick them up and take them to their parked car.
If we prevent only 500 drunk drivers from getting on the road and causing a fatal accident, we can potentially save 1,000 lives. At the current rate, that would result in a 10 percent decrease in annual fatalities, which could be the biggest drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities, ever.
Now, imagine if those 500 people recommended this self-driving vehicle to two of their heavy-drinking buddies. That could result in now 1,500 potential drunk drivers using a system proven for its safety, averting nearly 3,000 deaths in a year.
Autonomous vehicles now can seem geeky, but the technology is already somewhat available from Tesla Motors — at a steep price. My hope is that once this technology is proven, we as a society make a concerted effort to enable others to access it. If that means a few dollars a ride to even free-ride weekends — this is a social issue that self-driving cars can help address.
Wylde explained that even in light of autonomous vehicles, the choice rests with individuals regardless of transportation options. “People who get DUIs are the same people who, if asked when they’re sober, would tell you that they’d absolutely never drink and drive. Cabs are cheap or free on a few holidays here in the Valley, but guess what? My office still ends up representing people arrested for DUI on those nights.”
Regarding the impact on self-driving vehicles, Tyler Allen from the Allen Law Firm suggested the promise of on-demand ridesharing services are helping. With the prospect of autonomous driving around the corner, he’s a bit more pragmatic, “While [autonomous vehicles] may reduce the amount of cases representing drivers of vehicles, I imagine it will create new liability claims for manufacturers, owners and operators,” said Allen.
The truth is that drunk driving is an issue we must all deal with instead of placing inconspicuous fine print on beer bottles hoping that the problem will just solve itself, because as evidence has shown, it won’t. If you are drinking this St. Patrick’s Day, here’s something to toast to: A lot of very smart people are at work today helping create a world of self-driving vehicles to offer people even more — and safer — transportation options.
DISCLAIMER: None of the information contained in this blog post should be considered as legal advice. Please drive safely and responsibly, but if you need legal assistance, you are encouraged to retain your own attorney to help navigate your legal and financial responsibilities.
(Photo credits: jpalinsad360; SDOT; NHTSA)