Governing While Drunk (With Power)

It’s already mandatory in 47 states and Washington, D.C., in one form or another, but now the federal government is looking at mandating it. I’m talking about alcohol ignition interlocks. These are devices that are affixed to a motor vehicle, rendering it unstartable until someone blows what is effectively a breathalyzer reading that contains zero traces of alcohol. At present, only Alabama, South Dakota, and Vermont have no such laws.

On its face, this may seem to make sense. Indeed, why should every effort not be made to discourage or disenable a potential driver who has been consuming alcoholic beverages from potentially endangering others on thoroughfares? When New Mexico became the first government jurisdiction to enact required alcohol ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers in 2005, booze-related driving fatalities plummeted by 35%.

No sane person is going to advocate driving while intoxicated – whether on liquor, or any other substances. However, alcohol ignition interlocks do not discriminate – or rather, they do, depending on your viewpoint. These devices do not allow a vehicle to start even if the amount of alcohol on a person’s breath is under the legal limit for the jurisdiction in question. Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, calls federalization of alcohol ignition interlock laws a “slippery slope,” as, according to Longwell, “This creeping mentality about ‘don’t drink and drive’ as opposed to ‘don’t drive drunk’ takes over.”

Another objection arises from the fact that those required by government to have such devices installed on their vehicles for whatever court-mandated period of time are forced to pay for them out of pocket – in addition to the fines, legal fees, and penalties already associated with any drunk driving conviction. This additional financial burden on first-time offenders, argues Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, may even dissuade or prevent problem drinkers from seeking treatment.

One glass of wine or beer in a restaurant? Your car won’t start. Use a little too much mouthwash before driving to work? You’re going to be quite late. Currently, alcohol ignition interlocks are installed on around 150,000 vehicles in America. If federal law were to require them for all convicted drunk drivers, that number would come near one million.

Proponents say a federal law would save anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 lives a year (a fairly specious figure). All right, fine. Then how many lives could be saved in a year by withdrawing all troops from Iraq? How many could be saved by abolishing the FDA bureaucracy, which fails to approve new medicines in time for the sick to gain access to them, forcing them to go abroad, pay more, and suffer needlessly? How many lives might be saved by an absence of gun control laws, that only serve to disarm the peaceful in need of self-protection?

No, government people would have us believe that the key to “safety” is ever more laws, mandates, restrictions, intrusions, taxes, and supervision. Alcoholic beverages are already taxed by both federal and state governments. Motor vehicles and drivers alike are taxed, licensed, registered, and inspected in most jurisdictions. Now governments want to pre-empt potentially risky behavior by applying more of the same.

Responsibility for poor decision-making should rest with the individual, and should focus on compensation to anyone who has been injured or suffered any damages by such actions. In the case of a resulting fatality, the individual responsible should understand that this compensation may mean a lifetime of impoverishment for acting irresponsibly. That is how a market-based system of justice, as distinct from political government, would work. Under government, all of society is unneccessarily victimized by tougher laws, higher taxes, more police, and less individual freedom.

And that, perhaps, should be the most sobering thought of all.

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