On this day in 1897, a 25-year-old London taxi driver, George Smith, earned a dubious place in history. On that day, Smith was arrested and later fined for crashing his cab into a building while driving under the influence of alcohol. In so doing, Smith became the first person to be arrested for drunk driving.
It’s not like humans haven’t traversed the Earth inebriated since time immemorial. Legions of drunkards have fallen off or otherwise poorly navigated horses, mules, camels, buggies, boats and a lot of other conveyances for thousands of years.
As bad as that behavior was, the advent of the automobile transformed the seriousness of traveling while drunk. Much in the same way that guns changed warfare, cars changed travel. Even so, it was several years before lawmakers in the United States stepped up to address the growing problem of drunk driving. The first U. S. laws against operating a motor vehicle while under the influence went into effect in New York in 1910.
Fast forward a century. In 2009, 1.4 million people were arrested for driving under the influence. This is less than 1 percent of the total instances (147 million) of drunk driving self-reported by adults.
Last week the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) ended its annual campaign to curb impaired driving. You probably saw some of their commercials on television — shadowy law enforcement figures watching as people stumble drunkenly into their cars. While statistics represent a marked decline over time, the grizzly financial and personal tolls still deserve our attention. According to NHTSA, someone in the U. S. died every 48 minutes in alcohol-impaired driving crashes during 2010. That totals to more than 10,000 deaths. Then there are the quarter of a million people who were not killed, but simply injured in these crashes.
The agency also reports that alcohol-impaired motor vehicle crashes cost more than an estimated $37 billion annually. To parse it another way, the advocacy group dontdiedrunk.org estimates that drunk driving costs every adult in the U. S. approximately $500 per year in higher insurance premiums, additional public safety resources, etc. People other than the drunk driver pay a disproportionately high percentage of the costs — 63 percent. Even if you’re not directly involved in the crash, you’re still footing the bill.
The group also reports that the average drunk driver will drive drunk an average of 87 times before being caught. Moreover, 75 percent of drunk drivers whose licenses are suspended will continue to drive. Among drivers involved in fatal crashes, those with blood alcohol content levels of 0.08 or higher were eight times more likely to have a prior conviction for driving under the influence than were drivers who had not consumed alcohol.
In 2009, 181 children aged 14 and under were killed by a drunk driver. Over half of these kids were passengers in the vehicle being driven by the drunk driver.
Yes, all of this is a bit preachy and judgmental. On balance though, the now empty seats at the dinner table, the sides of the bed now vacant, the fewer smiles in the vacation photo — all stand as silent testimony that we still have a big problem in this country. It’s a problem we all pay for, regardless of our involvement; and it’s one we could largely solve.