Drunk driving has been a hot topic in politics for the last couple of decades. Under pressure from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), criminal prosecution of DUI cases has grown harsher. DUI enforcement is expensive. Mass transit would be far more effective at reducing drunk driving and provides a variety of other benefits.
Recent years have seen some high-profile DUI cases, including Congressman Vito Fossella's arrest in Virginia, and Paris Hilton's jail visit in Los Angeles. The blood-alcohol content threshold has gone from 0.10 to 0.08, and in many states a new offense has been added for high BACs, such as Aggravated DWI in New York and Extreme DUI in Arizona. Plea bargaining restrictions have also gotten more stringent. On top of all that, governments spend significant money advertising the criminal consequences of drunk driving.
The truth is that criminal enforcement does not work adequately as a deterrent. Many people continue drinking and driving. Humans have had problems with alcohol for thousands of years. Combine that with the fact that alternatives to driving are inadequate in most of the US, and it's not surprising that the problem has not gone away.
As a nation we spend billions on DWI enforcement. This includes police salaries and equipment, prosecutors, court staff, jails, probation officers and more. Those billions would be better spent on increased mass transit, which would provide a genuine alternative to driving.
I lived in Hiroshima in the mid-1990s. There is a section of the city named Nagarekawa. It is home to thousands of bars but has very little parking available. In the US, many municipalities require bars to have ample parking for customers. Nagarekawa has numerous mass transit options nearby, including a trolley car, bus lines, and a train station. Japan's mass transit system is so thorough I lived well without owning a car. I don't recall ever hearing about a drunk driving problem there. Statistics indicate less than 1000 drunk driving deaths a year there, versus nearly 15,000 in the US. With a bit less than half the US population, the per capita drunk driving death rate in Japan is in the ballpark of one-tenth of ours.
Imagine living in a medium-sized metropolitan area. Picture a night-life district with a variety of bars and other entertainment options. How are people who go to these bars going to get home?
Now imagine that there are multiple transit options in this location reaching within a mile or so of 90% of the residents, and within a half-mile of 50% of the residents. Of course this will not take all drunk drivers off the road. If it takes only 25% of them off the road it will do more to reduce drunk driving deaths than what we're doing now.
Of course, mass transit has many other benefits. It doesn't just reduce drunk driving deaths, but all kinds of traffic accidents. It also helps the economy and reduces consumption of fossil fuels. A well-designed system changes growth patterns, reducing sprawl as the population spreads along the rails more than the roads.
So what's it going to be America--more rails or more jails? Next time you hear a politician talk about being tough on drunk driving, tell them you want mass transit.