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Drunk Driving in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles County in 2014 during the July 4 holiday weekend, there are 45 mapped collisions in which alcohol was a factor (Berkeley Transportation Injury Mapping System)

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Does Los Angeles have a DUI problem?

In a LA Weekly piece dating back to the end of 2012, the headline provocatively accuses everyone in L.A. of driving drunk "all the time." Ignore the deliberate click-bait nature of the headline. Everyone is too strong a word. It doesn't accurately describe Los Angeles drivers, as much as people complain about them.

But the author has a point: "Over a thousand Angelenos got DUIs the week of July 4th [in 2012]. Seriously, Los Angeles. We need to talk. Why must you weave a dangerous game of Russian roulette along the freeways and boulevards every weekend?"

We may (or may not) have a DUI problem, but in a place like Los Angeles, where car culture and drinking culture collide, driving under the influence leads to frequent, often deadly crashes.

Out of a reported 300,000 incidents of drunk driving on any given day in the U.S., only 3,200 people face arrest and possible DUI charges (FBI and CDC)

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Are some drivers 'better' than others are at driving under the influence of alcohol?

Simply put, no - not in any meaningful way. As the statistic above shows, plenty of people get behind the wheel after drinking and "get away with it," because they manage to drive without catching the attention of police or are just plain lucky.

Eventually the luck runs out.

A 200 lb. man who drinks regularly and has three or four happy hour beers in his system may feel much differently, as he gets behind the wheel of a car, than a 140 lb. teenager with the same number of beers in his system, driving home from a friend's house late at night.

In addition, the teen generally lacks experience at both driving and drinking (as well as, ahem, drinking and driving). This does not excuse either person's decision to get behind the wheel, but given the facts and circumstances, one of these drivers is arguably "better" at driving while under the influence of alcohol.

But it's ultimately meaningless to argue who's better than the other, when you consider the numbers below.

In Los Angeles County for the entirety of 2014, there are 3,076 mapped collisions in which alcohol was a factor (Berkeley Transportation Injury Mapping System)

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Why is driving under the influence dangerous?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, someone is injured in a crash involving DUI every two minutes in the U.S., injuring at least 700 people every day. DUI is dangerous because it generally increases the chances - no matter who you are - that "something bad" will happen, be it a minor fender-bender and a first-time DUI charge or a fatal crash, felony charges, and a wrongful death lawsuit.

Look at the physical act of driving itself. Marc Green, Ph.D. studies human factors, or the science of how people interact with machines and systems. In an article on reaction time in crash avoidance, on how long it takes a driver to brake, he writes:

  • "[O]n a winding road, the driver must attend more to steering the car through the turns." Driving on a winding road increases the driver's cognitive load. It puts greater stress on the driver's attention.

There are a "large number of variables" at play in a driver's reaction time, Green writes, including the time it takes for mental processing, in which the driver first perceives the emergent situation and begins to move the foot from the gas to the brake. Anything that puts a greater burden on a driver's cognitive load will serve, at the least, as a distraction.

Consider the physiological response to alcohol in a person driving away after a night of binge drinking: In Beyond Hangovers, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains that alcohol affects the cerebral cortex (as well as the cerebellum and limbic system). The cerebral cortex helps us "think, plan, behave intelligently" - which may be why speeding (i.e. poor judgment) is often a factor in alcohol-related crashes.

In Sept. 2017, an off-duty Los Angeles police officer was accused of a drunk-driving crash that killed three people (Los Angeles Times)

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What is civil liability for DUI crashes in California?

Few but libertarians argue that DUI shouldn't be a crime. Writers like Radley Balko insist that reckless driving laws need sharper teeth, to adequately punish (and possibly prevent) all forms of dangerous driving, from DUI to impromptu road races on the highway. In an article about abolishing drunk driving laws, Balko writes, "If lawmakers want to stick it to dangerous drivers who threaten everyone else on the road, they can dial up the civil and criminal liability for reckless driving, especially in cases that result in injury or property damage."

As it stands, reckless driving does play a large role in terms of "punishment," in the form of civil liability. Society strives to hold people accountable for careless, reckless, and intentionally wrongful behavior. Those who injure or kill someone, and who are found to have been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash, have a serious mark of evidence that will be held against them in court in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.

There are often a number of contributing factors in accidents. Alcohol may be just one of several in any given crash. However, as the Los Angeles Police Protective League said in a statement following the fatal crash caused by an off-duty police officer in Sept. 2017, "There's never an excuse for driving under the influence, and if Officer Verduzco is found guilty of what he is accused of, then he should suffer the consequences for his reckless actions."

The Vision Zero Los Angeles project states that 260 lives were lost in accidents (both DUI-related and not) on L.A. streets in 2016


Is fighting drunk driving in Los Angeles worth our time and attention?

According to Vision Zero (a government project with the mission of reducing traffic deaths to zero by 2025), traffic collisions are the leading cause of death for Los Angeles kids ages 2-14. The Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization says that there were 10,497 drunk driving deaths nationwide in 2016. And a little more than one person on average dies in an alcohol-related crash every hour, per the NHTSA.

The question answers itself.

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