Friday, December 23, 2005

Drinking, driving, drunks, and mass transit

Drunk driving and mass transit? How are they connected? I'll tell ya!!
This is going to be a bit of a rant.
Groups like MADD have focused relentlessly on the prosecution of people who drive after consuming alcohol. They push for more punitive sanctions, and for lowering the threshold BAC for arrest.
The reality is that driving with a BAC of 0.08 is not much different than driving while talking on a cellphone, or eating a burger and fries, or changing a CD. I'm guilty of all of the latter, though I've never driven while anywhere near intoxicated. I'm actually very careful not to drink and drive because I know how harsh the penalties are.
I'm not a total apologist for those who drink and drive. Once you get to 0.12 and up, I think there should be penalties. Still I'm not big on using BAC as the basis, and I think the penalties for first-time offenders are way too harsh, but once you get to second offenses I become a lot less sympathetic.
Still, prosecution is not the best way to approach the problem, IMHO (net-speak for "in my humble opinion", though I'm not as humble as I should be).
What is the correct way? Mass transit. I have been beating the mass transit drum for a while now. There are many reasons for supporting it. But DWI is rarely cited as a reason for it.
So think about this. We spend billions of dollars (probably tens or even hundreds of billions) every year pulling people over and ticketing them for speeding, other traffic violations, and for dwi offenses. This is a very expensive way to deal with the problem, arguably ineffective, and imposes a lot of other costs on society (spend a night in traffic court and you'll see what I mean), with no other meaningful benefit.
If we spent billions on mass transit to create useful systems that make it easy for people to use it, we would reduce the amount that people drive.
There's an important type of person to consider in this analysis. I had a client not too long ago who showed up to court apparently drunk. She had driven a long way, and was planning to drive a long way back after court. I made sure she did not drive that night, by the way.
Anyway, I was chatting with her about her situation. A habitual drinker, she had tried to quit for years. All the institutional efforts made were to get her to quit drinking.
Reality check: Most of these people are not going to stop drinking!
I told her something she had apparently never been told before - maybe you should keep drinking and find a way to stop driving.
This had never occurred to her. Unfortunately, our society and infrastructure do not make it easy for someone to follow through on this approach. It works if you live in New York City, or a few other places with good mass transit. But it's not easy in upstate New York.
Some people will be shocked that I suggested she keep drinking. That's just ignoring the reality of the human condition. People have been drinking for thousands of years, maybe longer. Alcohol has been causing problems for just as long. But cars only came into human society in the last 100 years.
Go back 100 years and it was not terribly uncommon for a lot of people to get stupid drunk and stumble around. They didn't have cars to get into, so they didn't cause nearly as much harm.
If we got our heads together and created useful mass transit systems, with the dwi issue in mind, we would make a huge dent in the problem.
In Japan, where I lived for a year, they have areas where the bars are concentrated. There's not much parking there, but there are mass transit stops nearby. Here in the US, bars are everywhere and they have parking lots.

How stupid is that? Why are bars allowed to have parking lots? In my hometown of Guilderland, the zoning requires them to have ample parking. Come on people - Think!!!

Enough ranting. Time to do some work.

1 comment:

Feisty said...

Excellent post -- just found it, though I appear to be pretty late in doing so.

It reminds me of a conversation I had today with a woman (friend of a friend) who lost her license due to a DWI arrest. She told me that she had been driving anyway, because it's very difficult to get around in upstate NY without driving. Once I told her about the penalties imposed for AUO, she agreed not to drive on a suspended license.

I directed her to the web page of the RGRTA (local transit authority / bus company in Rochester) and looked at bus schedules with her. While I had ridden the bus before and could understand the schedules, (I didn't have a car for the first 3 years of college), she had a very difficult time doing it. And when she realized that missing one bus would delay her journey by AT LEAST an hour, and in some cases more, she threw up her hands.

Bus service in Rochester (I'm not familiar with mass transit in Albany) is absolutely terrible. Busses are often not on time, and even when they are, they are infrequent and the transfer system is very difficult to understand. I admitted to her that when I didn't have a car, I walked or biked most of the time. Even a 90 minute walk might be quicker than a bus trip.

Add the climate in this area to the mix (a 90 minute walk in January in Rochester isn't much fun), and our existing mass transit system becomes completely unworkable.

As an aside, when I lived in VA, I once heard of a judge who sentenced repeat offenders (3+ convictions) to find housing within a 10 minute walk of a bar or establishment that served alcohol. He was clearly ahead of the curve, though I wonder if that sort of order would still be permitted.