Jan 27, 2014

#41 Driving Impaired

All Rights Reserved © 2004 Thomas W. Day

July was the tenth anniversary of my last appointment with jury duty. I don't know if I've since been identified as a "hostile juror" and blacklisted or if my luck has simply improved, but it's an experience I don't miss. This week, however, I was reminded of my position at that court date and how radicalized I've become since then. Which is saying something, because the court appeared to think I was pretty radical at the time.

My position of driving impaired is, when someone is found to be incapable of maneuvering a vehicle precisely and quickly, the vehicle and the driver's license should be immediately confiscated. And not returned, ever. Car dealers would lose their businesses for selling a vehicle to an unlicensed customer. Individuals should be held responsible for privately selling a vehicle to an individual who does not hold a valid license and the seller should be liable for the sales price when the vehicle is impounded. That's the way we're fighting the "war on drugs," why shouldn't it apply to a war that's more win-able?

We all know the real reason that DUI, DWI, and the other doing-something-while-drunk acronyms don't carry much punishment. Most of our legislators, governors, and presidents have been, and are, drunks. They don't want to lose their "right" to wander from bar to men's club to alcohol-soaked fundraisers. Most of the ruling class is equally soused and they own the legislators, so we get wimpy, gutless, and mildly expensive penalties that bounce off of the skin of the rich and powerful like a mosquito on Superman's hand. That is exactly what I objected to when I was asked for my opinion in court.

It didn't help that, by 9:00AM , I'd already had a miserable day. The day before, a friend and I had gone riding in the hills south of Denver. About 75 miles into a 125 mile riding afternoon, we swapped bikes so he could see how my brand new Yamaha 850 TDM handled on a dirt road. He was blown away and left me eating dust on his Honda 650 Hawk for quite a few miles before he gave my bike back. I didn't mind, since I always loved riding the Hawk, even on a dirt road. What I did object to, I discovered later, was he'd had to switch to reserve and didn't think to mention it to me.

This friend never met a vehicle he couldn't run out of gas. He and his passengers have walked away from motorcycles, large and small cars, new and old cars, lawnmowers and snowblowers wondering how someone could not notice the arrow pointing at the large "E" in the middle of the dashboard. Apparently, it rarely occurred to him that running out of fuel would result in a disabled vehicle. Sort of a personality defect, I suppose.

The morning of my court appearance, I was about half way between my home and the small town south of Denver that served as the county seat for my county, when I discovered the bike was on reserve. Yeah, I know, I should have checked. The TDM has an electric fuel pump and there was no reason to turn off the petcock unless I was removing the tank. So, the petcock only served me as a fuel gauge. This morning it didn't do squat for me. I managed to nurse the bike downhill the last 4 of 5 miles before I ran out of fuel and downhill. I pushed the bike the last mile into Castle Rock and arrived slightly late for court, barely able to stand, drenched in sweat, and pissed off.

I suppose as punishment for being late, the prosecution lawyer called me first. "Do you support the state's laws on driving while intoxicated," he asked.

"I have a much stronger position on impaired drivers," I answered.

"So, you would be inclined to prosecute a driver who was found to have a blood alcohol level above the state's mandated 0.1%?"

"If there was evidence that his driving was impaired by anything, I would, yes."

That wasn't apparently the answer to the question the lawyer had asked. So he asked it again, "If our defendant was tested and found to be driving with more than 0.1% blood alcohol, would you convict him on the grounds of driving while impaired?"

"If there was evidence that his driving was impaired, yes I would." And I was dismissed. What I wanted as evidence was some sign that the driver had been stopped because his driving skills were obviously disabled and, after being stopped, he was found to be legally drunk. I read, a few days later, that wasn't the case. The driver was stopped after leaving a bar, not yet out of the bar's parking lot, and had not shown any evidence of impairment. The case was dismissed for another reason, but it made me think about how this badly designed law gets abused. And I've been thinking about it ever since.

I'm old enough to have been on the roads in the bad old days when people often drank and drove. I lived in Texas when you could wave a beer at the highway patrol and they'd simply wave back.  I've even ridden with some folks who would be well beyond our current legal limit and was not particularly concerned to do so. The fact is, some people are drunk on a single 3.2% beer and some people drive much better than average after downing killer amounts of grain alcohol. The law is supposed to treat us all equally, not assume we are all the same person with the same abilities.

I was just out of tech school and my first boss was convinced that Everclear was the perfect drink because it was "so pure" that he never got a hangover from drinking the crap. Coming back from a job 100 miles from home, he drained about 1/4 of a bottle of the stuff while one-handedly managing a one-ton Chevy pickup full of equipment, traveling over poorly maintained dirt roads at high speeds. In fact, we made it home in slightly more than an hour. He four-wheel drifted his way around country curves and blasted down the road with at least as much skill as A.J. Foyt on an oval track. The booze didn't bother me, but the lousy roads and overtaxed pickup suspension sure did. This isn't an ad for drinking or driving. On a high intake week, I might down two glasses or beer. I'm not opposed to the stuff, I'm indifferent. I take it if it's free and I usually leave it if I have to pay for it. I’m also not campaigning for reducing the legal blood alcohol limit. I’m all for tightening it up, in fact.

Even more to the point, I’m for tightening up driving skills all around. Every day on my commute to work, I see, and try to avoid, drivers who are more impaired than my Everclear-guzzling,  four-wheel power-sliding ex-employer. I have a long list of driving impairments that I think are at least as critical as alcohol influence. Being stupid is at the top of that list.

Owning a cell phone and using it while driving is incredibly stupid. Rear-ending anyone in any driving situation is perfect and absolute evidence of driving stupidity.

Personally, I'd like to see a law put a limit on the number of rear-ending accidents a driver can have. Pass that number and that's it for driving; for life. Two would be an acceptable number for this brand of stupidity. Three is beyond stupid.

Single vehicle accidents fall into the same category of impairment. Maybe one or two accidents of this sort in a lifetime might be judged reasonable, assuming a lot of miles driven. Someone who, on a regular basis, crashes into barriers, runs off of the road, or is unable to avoid one of the sort of trees that jump in front of cars is permanently impaired and should not be driving anything more massive than a 25cc moped.

Obviously, other driving impairments should be taken as seriously as being stupid.

Being blind, for instance, ought to be taken more seriously. Being so physically incapacitated that a driver is unable to turn his head to check for blind spots should be a factor that removes a driving license. An addiction to coffee while driving might be cause for driving dismissal. Essentially, any activity or incapacity that drops a driver's skills below a minimum level should be grounds for license removal.

Now that’s the way to solve highway overcrowding, get rid of the incapacitated, foolish, marginally skilled drivers on the road. Based on recent experience, I’d say less than half of the current drivers would retain their licenses seventy-two hours past the moment this law went into effect.

If we decided to do it tomorrow we could have the technology to actually test for driving impairment instead of revenue-generating but marginally relevant issues like blood alcohol level. Setting random standards for driving ability is unreasonable, unfair, and disingenuous. Highway safety should be the goal. Driving (especially driving a large car, truck, or SUV) is a life-support, life-taking activity. Hell, Ford Explorers, Chevy Tahoe’s, and that Cadillac SUV monstrosity are weapons of mass destruction. Everyone should meet a minimum standard, regardless of recreational or occupational activities. If you can't drive well enough to be on the road, you shouldn't be on the road.

With minimal technology and a little hardware, the police could start putting drivers into driving simulators programmed with action-packed highway scenarios. These simulators would evaluate all aspects of impairment. The larger the vehicle the driver is mismanaging, the tougher the test he/she has to pass. Fail the test; lose the vehicle and the license. If your cell phone is turned on when you're stopped, you have to take the test while correctly answering automated questions on the phone. If a cup of hot coffee is found in a cup holder, you take the test sucking on hot coffee. Fail the test; take a cab or the bus home. And you get to look forward to calling your auto loan company in the morning to explain why their collateral now belongs to the state. Now there's a law with some teeth and a purpose. I look forward to your comments, especially those of you who think "going for a ride" means wobbling from bar to bar.

I'll be even more entertained if you are an elected official who resents my implications. Please write, I need a good laugh.

October 2004

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