What are the politics of law-making on drunken driving?

If you look with completely objective eyes, those who injure or kill other when driving drunk should suffer major penalties. Why? The law of homicide or serious assaults gets a conviction when either the defendant intended to cause the injury or was reckless, i.e. foresaw the possibility of harm but went ahead anyway. So with drunken driving, we have an individual intentionally drinking a liquid that reduces concentration, and then gets into a vehicle intending to drive. At the very least, drunken drivers are reckless every time they drive and should face serious criminal penalties if the foreseeable injuries or death(s) result. Except that’s not how the laws play out in states around the nation.

Let’s take Maine as an example


A recent high-profile traffic accident saw David Labonte crash his truck into a family riding their bicycles in Biddeford. His blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. When asked about the case, Governor Paul LePage said drivers who cause the death of more than one person should lose their diver’s license permanently. In other words, he does not believe Maine’s law to be tough enough.

Yet here’s the political problem. The Maine legislature was asked in 2006 to pass Tina’s Law. As is often the case when trying to pressure reluctant law-makers into reforms, the bill was named after a recent high-profile victim. Tina Turcotte of Scarborough was rear-ended and killed by a trucker who had sixty-three driving license suspensions on his record. If ever there was a case of a serial offender, this driver was it.

Yet when the law making penalties on drink driving tougher came to the vote, it almost lost because all the voters in the rural areas who depend on their vehicles to get around threatened retaliation against any politician who voted in favor. Their consensus was that this offender was a trucker. This was the only way he could make a living. Although everyone admitted he had a problem with alcohol, simply depriving him of his license was not going to improve his view of the world. Sending him to jail would cause serious hardship to his family for whom he was the sole breadwinner. So the will to pass the law began strong and then faded slightly as the rural voters had their say. In the end, the law created the crime of “aggravated operating after habitual offender revocation”, i.e. stiffer mandatory penalties for repeat offenders. In 2010, the Maine High Court had to confirm the law as constitutional after a trial judge in the case of Gerald Gilman refused to impose the mandatory minimum sentence.

How then can law-makers be persuaded to act?

If there are cases which capture the pubic’s imagination, there can be a bill brought to the legislature. But when the lobbying starts, the political will weakens.

Take everyone in the food and beverage industry. If people are to be deterred from driving, their businesses will take a big hit. This is not just bars. It starts with the farmers who grow the grapes, corn and other crops that get converted into alcoholic drinks. It moves to the brewers, distillers and winemakers, and to the distribution business. Then we come to all the businesses which sell the alcohol on Main Street, and run bars, diners and restaurants. By the time you add up all the people employed and the investors who drawn rental income from the land and premises used, you’re talking a lot of voters to upset.

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