Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The Real Cost of Drinking and Driving (Besides, Like, Vehicular Manslaughter)

"Natasha Vargas-Cooper had two drinks at dinner. Her ride home cost her more than $5,000."

61 Comments / Post A Comment

Bobby Womack (#4,074)

I love her writing here on the Awl and elsewhere, and it sucks that she has to pay all the money, but are we supposed to be sympathetic? If she blew .08 or higher she was obviously not fit to be driving. Shitty situation, but if she had been in an accident and injured herself or somebody else, I don't think there would be any debate. Not that there's debate, yet, it appears I'm the first commenter somehow.

I guess the AA meetings seems excessive, but otherwise I'm not bothered by her being punished for drunk driving.

Pop Socket (#187)

She never does say what her blood alcohol level was or why a dinner with one bottle of wine was wrapping up after 2 a.m. Plus she was going over 80. I smell rationalization.

yellojkt, she attributes her high blood alcohol level to her small size. I can't find the reference here but at the time I believe she was on her way to a booty call and got nailed in Santa Monica on the freeway. The speed limit is 65 mph.

libmas (#231)

But she says the officer asked her to step out and walk on the sidewalk? Is there a sidewalk next to the freeway in Santa Monica?

Bettytron (#575)

Yeah, our Thanksgiving this year mostly revolved around my under-drinking-age sister revealing that she'd gotten a DUI, and her not understanding why no one was willing to help her out with all the court fees and fines and tow truck costs. I'm finding it difficult to be sympathetic.

I've often wondered what .08% feels like. Is it a little bit of a buzz, a full-on buzz, or no buzz at all?

I wish law enforcement would set-up shop in bars to give people data points before they are on the road.

deepomega (#1,720)

.08 is allegedly "feeling it" – a bit of a buzz probably qualifies. Two glasses on a small person seems buzzy, yes?

@CaptainFantastic: One of the local bars in my area has a wall-mounted Breathalyzer. It costs a dollar or so to use (like the jukebox!), and the conclusions generally drawn from the data points it provides are along the lines of "Dude, I scored higher than you!"

I read it more as a cautionary tale, not so much a feel-sorry-for-me tale.

NinetyNine (#98)

That part about not getting a blanket? Shivers.

6h057 (#1,914)

Reminds me how Burroughs wrote about an old junkie trick to drop the last bits of a hit into the lining of a jacket. That way if he ever got locked up he'd have something to starve off the sickness.

Honestly, if I ever get jammed up I'm reaching for the RSS feeds I got stashed in the soles of my sneakers.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I read tat whole thing more as a cautionary tale especially re: the financial costs of making that mistake. One of the problems with current DUI punishments is that they have a far greater impact on those on the lower end of the income curve. Because the "punishment" for DUI remains largely one of finances, it's really just a punishment for those with less. $5000 to the well off (who absolutely drive drunk just as much) is more of a social embarrassment fro which they quickly recover when they learn their golfing buddies have also hit that little roadbump.

sigerson (#179)

@AbeSauer – Tell that to the rich guys who get their cars impounded, lose their license, have to explain to the powers that be why they shouldn't lose their state bar admission, medical license, stockbroker's license, etc. etc. It's not a social embarassment to go to Riker's Island, dude! White collar criminals face this prejudice from jurors like you all the time — when in fact they have more to lose than poor defendants and will respond better to the same punishment. In other words, one DUI for a middle-class "golfing buddy" is very likely to be his last DUI ever. But the rate of recidivism among less advantaged DUI defendants? Uh, just a little bit higher.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Clarence Rosario so did I.

brianvan (#149)

Her BAC isn't specifically mentioned.

I found an online calculator that lets you input all the variables for a given situation and get an approximate BAC. I calculated for a female of an average female weight who was drinking wine (doesn't vary much in alcohol content) for 60 minutes.

At two drinks, the result was 0.059 BAC.
At three drinks (two over-poured wine glasses), the result was 0.098 BAC.

I am guessing she measured somewhere in the 0.08-0.10 range. Some notes about this:

0.10 was the limit as recently as 10 years ago in many states. In 2000, the federal government made 0.08 THEIR standard due to pressure from advocacy groups. (The types made up of parents of dead children and teenagers) It's common knowledge that federal transportation funds were the method of leverage used to "persuade" each of the states into following suit, which they did.

Prior to 2000, drunk driving accidents in the 0.08 – 0.10 range were not a significant threat to public safety. They were exceedingly rare.

Individually, the states have made drastic increases to fines and penalties for all kinds of vehicular violations in the past few decades, far out-of-scale to inflation and wage growth. They've also dramatically increased enforcement of these violations. It seems the motivation for this has been revenue. Many states are having revenue issues, and most politicians don't want to raise income or property taxes, so this is essentially a raise in the "gotcha" tax. The severity of the non-financial penalties (the classes, the suspended licenses) are pure deterrents, but it's unclear what impact these have on overall road safety.

These same states would not have increased the speed limit on highways to 65 or 70 (as many did around the same time) if road safety had been a big public concern.

These same states would also do something more about severely impaired drivers, since many people still are severely injured or killed on the roads because of driver impairment, and other types of impairments (lapsed attention, fatigue, pharmaceutical, psychoactive) are playing a more dominant factor in accidents. Instead of investing in public transit or doing anything to help relieve impaired vehicle operators, they're playing "gotcha" on the side of the highway with the few that they catch. As a result, few impaired drivers are stopped from driving, but when one of them is caught, it's a big payday for the state.

So, in conclusion, you are probably completely safe to drink two glasses of wine and drive home, but there's a significant chance that a traffic stop will lead to a major inconvenience and financial cost for you, probably with zero benefit to the safety of yourself or anyone else.

Hence, I am sympathetic because she got fucked and no one is better off for it. And let he who has NEVER broken a traffic law cast the first stone.

djfreshie (#875)

Totally agree…I'm sympathetic not because I advocate the behavior but because I know I'm in that boat all the time, whether it pertains to having had a couple drinks – but are clearly not impaired pat the point of being capable of driving safely – or simply just zipping around a parking lot, going over the limit, making a slightly dangerous pass on a 1-lane road…carelessness happens, but only when drinking is involved will it cost you that much. People do dangerous shit all the time. I almost got side swiped on my bike this morning by a bus doing absolutely nothing illegal beyond not paying attention to my position in the bike lane. We've all been careless, and when it's a fairly minimal amount of carelessness resulting in $5000 worth of punishment and a night in prison…well I'm not going to pay her fines for her, but I definitely am not above saying "That is a shitty thing." I don't think anybody is. Odds are you all drive like dicks when you're sober, so really. Odds are!

sigerson (#179)

@brianvan — aren't you ignoring the deterrent effect? Hefty fines, required classes and probationary periods are all meant to punish the wrongdoer but also to provide a public display. I know I read her piece and thought again about driving while having two drinks. (even though I have 100 pounds on her).

So you can't really say that "no one is better of for it." Obviously that cost of a public display is being borne disproportionately by Natasha, but is it being borne unfairly by her? I don't think so. Therefore, I am not sympathetic at all.

sigerson (#179)

And before you say "no one would have known if not for her writing about it" — people talk about their DUI all the time. And others become aware of the harsh sentences that are handed out. All that publicity and word-of-mouth gets around and we all enjoy somewhat safer streets as a result.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Sigerson. You mean the rich guys like seemingly every other politician in this region? The candidate in the recount for MN gov right now, Emmer, has two DUI arrests. Seems to have really hurt him. In Wi there was recently an assemblyman who had 5 DUIs, 3 in the last year or so, and he kept his job.

Prejudice from jurors? What jurors? Maybe in a DUI homicide they'll see a jury.

brianvan (#149)

@sigerson – but what exactly is the point of the deterrent? NYC could institute such penalties for open container violations (and we all know someone who has gotten nailed for sipping something on the subway ride home), but that would do nothing for public safety.

Reasonably, there should be a price to pay for DUI, but scaled appropriately for the impairment level. These penalties are inappropriately big… partially because raising fines has been much more politically friendly than raising taxes, and partially because MADD has gone apeshit trying to eradicate questionable safety threats.
Obviously you should lose your driving privileges for being caught driving at high impairment levels or for repeat offenses. But should Natasha have to cough up another $5,000 and get banned from driving for a year if she blows an 0.01 the next time? How does that make sense?

And, I insist on repeating that 0.08 was an acceptable BAC for a very long time (DUI can be charged on other impairment measures if BAC is not alone sufficient) and we did not all die in traffic accidents. The enforcement of that level of impairment and the severity of the penalties are not products of reasoning about road safety, they're products of shitty politics and shitty governance.

For total disclosure's sake: No DUI's on my record at all.

NinetyNine (#98)

Brian, without a BAC your theorizing is tiresome (I know lots of people with DUIs. Only two actually said 'Man, I was wasted' — the rest carefully measured their intake and tried to explain why their DUI wasn't like the others).

Even with it, it is. Yes, we should be as aggressive with other distractions (cell phones, coffee, etc). We should have stronger laws to protect victims of hit and runs. Driving a car should be seen as a responsibility greater than carrying a firearm. All of these things would increase public safety. Jumping through seven statistical hoops to justify a third or fourth or nth drink will not.

brianvan (#149)

@99: I once had a roommate who somehow racked up 4 DUI violations by his 25th birthday. Which is horrific. I've been exposed to the rationalizing.

But it's equally asinine to have DUI legislation that imposes harsh penalties on people who aren't driving impaired at all. Losing your license for six months (and not, say, 15 days) because some people have impaired peripheral vision at your BAC level? Crock of shit.

Maevemealone (#968)

Paying thousands in fines and losing of licenses and the embarrassement was a huge deterrent to my friends who got DUI's. So, I guess it's the individual's shame tolerance as much as alcohol tolerance?

ae38 (#1,097)

@NinetyNine – I'm not going to deny that I never drove when I knew I maybe should not have. But the funny thing about DUI's is that you're more likely to get them when you're sure you haven't drank a lot because you're going to probably be driving a bit more recklessly (I think the only time I ever followed the speed limit was when I was tipsy) AND, most importantly, you're going to be dumb enough to tell the cops you had only one or two drinks…because it's true, and you're proud of your restraint. Only problem is, as I have since learned, any time you admit to even a drop of alcohol, you have given the police probable cause to arrest you and almost no cop is going to pass up the opportunity to improve crime stats. As my brother told me, lying to a cop is not a crime, driving with alcohol in your system is.

Not to mention that so many of these are technically "set by the states" but are in reality federal mandates. Speed limits, for instance, are up to an individual state to set, but of course if you happen to make them any faster than 65 MPH, the feds will cut off highway funding.

ae38 (#1,097)

So I definitely DID NOT blow a .08, I blew a .07 but the cops felt I was "acting" drunk (read: angry I'm being humiliated on the side of the street) and so I ended up with a wet reckless and thousands of dollars of fees. And can we speak to the arbitrary nature of DUI laws? What happened between now and 15 years ago when the limit was .1 in many states rather than the need to collect more revenue?

NinetyNine (#98)

Um, isn't law pretty much always arbitrary for offenses that aren't violent? That's a non-argument. Why isn't the speed limit 66? Or the DUI limit 0.01?
It's like a man arguing he didn't know sex could lead to pregnancy. You gambled and lost. Lesson: don't be a gambler (or be a better one). Drinking alcohol is not a right nor a prerequisite for driving. I'm not saying I haven't done it or that your experience didn't suck. Just that it was a bet you were well aware the consequences of.

Kevin (#2,559)

She should know better and live in Boston or NYC where you don't have to drive home after getting your drunk on.

Miles Klee (#3,657)
deepomega (#1,720)


No more complaining about the F train.

myfanwy (#1,124)



hockeymom (#143)

People who don't care about hockey are sad and wrong. I would fine you 5-grand and throw you in jail MYSELF, if I could.
As it stands, I will just have to wait until Palin is president. Then, you may be sent to Gitmo. Also.

She left out the part about the booty call.

Pop Socket (#187)

Judging by traffic stops "two glasses of wine" is all anybody has ever drunk in their life.

barnhouse (#1,326)


deepomega (#1,720)

For what it's worth, I think the national conversation about drinking and driving isn't very constructive. MADD etc. treat it as though there is a bright line that you cross, and suddenly you are running over children and old ladies and so forth, when the reality is a lot more pernicious and harder to demonize. Like the whole "talking on a cell phone, even with a hands free device, is about as impairing as a .08 BAC" thing. While I am in no way defending drunk driving, I think that treating it as its own class of immorality makes it too easy to ignore the consequences of buzzed driving or to talk yourself into saying the police would only let you off with a warning or whatever.

MattP (#475)

There but for the grace of God go a lot of us.

karion (#11)

Very much this.

Kevin (#2,559)

She also maybe should have done a snort of coke or something uppish before driving. *I don't actually know if this works*

libmas (#231)

I can't imagine a snort of coke leading someone to drive less fast? But I'm inexperienced here.

garge (#736)

In all seriousness, I worry dreadfully about my wee baby brother. I am the crazy older sister that begs him not to drink and drive! every time we talk on the phone, and practically as the signature to every email I send him. It's based on no past behavior or anything concrete, but I just can't imagine how It Works in car country.

sigerson (#179)

This is why I moved to New York City. Moving to any place that I have to drive to drink is a surefire way to get into the slammer and all those mind-numbing classes and probationary periods.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I vaguely remember a thread a few months ago where we talked about the perils of living and socializing in Los Angeles. Is there any worthwhile public transportation infrastructure out there? And if not, is there a demand for it?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Ever see Speed?

barnhouse (#1,326)

The public transportation system here isn't so bad, really. The problem is that the distances are enormous so it takes forever to get where you want to go, with or without a car.

Bittersweet (#765)

@boy: yeah, the LA public transport "system" is a big joke. Not sure if there's big demand for it or not.

I'm always surprised, though, to hear about celebrity DUI arrests in LA. You'd think that if anyone could afford a limo or Town Car to take them around to parties, it'd be, you know, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@barnhouse: That's what I've heard, and it's particularly dismaying. A trillion dollars worth of trains and bus routes can't turn back the clock on a century of sprawl.

bod, I live 7.5 miles from work. If I take public transportation I have to take 2 buses and one train and it takes me 1.5 hours to get there. They have been trying to build a subway to the ocean since the 80s and the rich folks on the west side have been terrified that it will give open up the gates of hell.

deepomega (#1,720)

@kitten: It's gonna be approved any day now! Also the expo line to downtown opens this spring (La Cienega->downtown to start, then eventually maybe Venice->Downtown) and the connector from the expo down to the green got approved I think? Anyway, change is coming.

soco (#8,225)

I bet those cops were angry Harry Potter fans.

We do have a public transport system; I am part of the 10% that uses it. It's not so great for the late night booty call, I will admit.

Screw_Michigan (#8,015)

The .08 BAC has absolutely everything to do with only two things: a back-door Prohibition to change the alcohol consumption behavior of Americans and revenue generation. Let's not kid ourselves, folks. The people getting popped at .08 are not the problem here. The problem is people who are drinking 12-packs and heading home. But this is endorsed because local jurisdictions need money.

I highly recommend everyone read Cato's 2003 study "War On Social Drinking."

karion (#11)

The thing is, the BAC doesn't matter anymore. The offense used to be DWI, which was "driving while intoxicated." Blowing the legal limit (then .10, now .08) was conclusive evidence of intoxication.

The offense is now DUI, which is "driving under the influence." There is no longer a requirement to prove intoxication, just influence, and influence is a much lower bar (pun not intended). Slurred words, bloodshot eyes, odor of booze – all of these are indicators of influence. You can, quite easily, be convicted of DUI with a BAC of .05, particularly if you can't afford an attorney. More often, the person pleads to negligent driving or something like that.

I haven't been arrested or convicted of DUI, but certainly could have been, many times. It is, quite frankly, a crap shoot, and from the moment you are pulled over, you are in the system. If you have had any alcohol whatsoever, you are likely "under the influence," and from that point forward, it is a question of money.

As I think was NVC's point, it is exponentially more expensive and dangerous to drive after ANY amount of alcohol than it is to take the cab – there is no "safe" amount of booze you can have without significant legal and financial risk (to say nothing of public safety). Anyway, ballsy piece, NVC.

brianvan (#149)

Ballsy because a piece like that would bring out the self-righteous people who would say vicious things about someone for making any kind of mistake in public. They literally crawl out of the woodwork for these things.

You know, they don't exactly make cab transit cheap, either.

Actually, neither is drinking itself. Only reason why you'd pay all that money to do something that could cost you so much more money afterward (not to mention jail, health, lives) is because it's marginally better than watching Friday night TV alone and slitting your wrists.

Last time I took a can in LA it was $20 for 4 miles. Though it's a lot less than $5,000. Luckily, my booty call always comes to my place.

iplaudius (#1,066)

A few weeks ago we cabbed it back and forth from West Hollywood to a club near Wilshire & Vermont (Koreatown-ish) — about 6 miles. Each way was almost $30. Not cheap! But well worth it, in light of stories like this one (to say nothing of the hassle of parking).

edgeworth (#8,867)

I think there's a huge gap between driving over the legal limit (0.5 in Australia) and driving over the point where you're actually going to endanger anyone. I've driven over the legal limit plenty of times and I'm not ashamed of it.

This is also yet another reason why spread-out suburban cities with no public transport are a worst case scenario in terms of urban planning and efficient living.

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