'Drinking and Driving' and 'Driving Under the Influence' Are Not the Same

by John Finn | 11/20/97 6:00am

To the Editor:

From her letter of Nov. 7, I feel that Anat Levtov missed my point in emphasizing that there is no "drunk driving" or "driving while intoxicated" (DWI) law in New Hampshire, but rather a law against Driving Under the Influence (DUI).

Levtov asks, "Well, is that what really matters about drunk driving? Whether you might be held responsible under one law rather than the other?" But my point is that the offense is not drunk driving. Wisely, I think, the law prohibits driving at a level of influence that is far short of intoxication, at least for many people.

Levtov herself goes on to urge that people not drink and drive; a sensible caveat, but one against driving under the influence, and not drunk driving. I think it is important that we realize that you don't have to be drunk to be in violation of the law, and, more importantly, to endanger yourself and others. But as long as the media persist in misnaming the offense "drunk driving", they give the idea that as long as you're not drunk, it's OK to drive.

California Highway Patrolman David W. Kelley, in his excellent little book How to Talk Your Way out of a Traffic Ticket (CCC Publications, L.A., 1989), makes the same point: "Let me clear up one common misconception. "Drunk Driving" is inaccurate terminology. You do not have to be drunk to be a menace on the highway or even to be arrested. You only have to be influenced to some degree by the alcohol you have consumed. . . . Often, the person who has had "only two or three beers" is more dangerous behind the wheel than the one who is obviously "drunk" ----because the drunk knows he is drunk and knows he has to use some caution or he won't make it home. The person who has had "only two or three drinks" usually thinks he or she is still fully capable of driving ----then causes others to suffer for this careless and foolish mistake."

That the media persist is calling the offense "drunk driving" is all too typical of the kind of hysterical hyperbole that seems inevitable whenever the subject is recreational drugs, legal or illegal. Thus we see "binge drinking" used to describe having as few as three or four drinks in an evening, "drug abuse" used to mean any use whatever of some forbidden drug, and so on. A person convicted of DUI is castigated by the media as a "drunk driver", a description which is in many cases slanderous. But this castigation appeals to the ancient urge for dragging sinners into the marketplace and stoning them.

Of course, we expect this sort of abuse of language from the tabloids, but I find it distressing that responsible publications can't show a littlerestraint, a little sobriety, instead of indulging in such childish exaggeration. In Norway, the BAC that constitutes DUI is .02 ----a single drink. But U.S. newspapers call that "drunk driving", too.

Levtov herself seems confused by the distinction. She argues against driving under the influence, but insists on calling it "drunk driving," which it isn't. Nor is having a BAC of 0.075 in any sense a matter of "fooling the police" -- driving with that BAC is legal in New Hampshire. Levtov says that she is "shocked that someone would even consider the legal issues", but if she were to take the time to do just that, and read the statute, she would see that what it prohibits is something far less severe than drunk driving. Surely she doesn't mean to suggest that we remain ignorant of the law, assume that it only prohibits drunk driving, and conclude that as long as we're not loaded it's OK to drive.

I myself find it shocking that a citizen in a democracy would consider a clear statement of laws as "legalistic rambling." Ignorance of the DUI laws has led to the widespread misconceptions that having a certain BAC constitutes being "legally drunk", and that being in this state is a violation of the law, even for a pedestrian. These misconceptions have led to instances of what I consider egregious police misconduct. I am shocked at how many Americans seem to think that "police misconduct" is a self-contradictory term, that the actions of the police are not to be questioned, and that a good citizen is one who accepts without question any actions whatever by "the authorities". That ain't what they larnt me in my high school civics class!