Drunk Driving Myths

Common myths and misconceptions about drunk driving

A recent report from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) has given us the following information about some common myths regarding drunk driving:

All drunk drivers are the same.

The only thing that drunk drivers have in common is a propensity to drink and drive – some do it infrequently, others do it often; some are at relatively low risk of causing a collision, others are at very high risk. Drunk drivers are one of the most heterogeneous offender populations in the justice system. Drunk drivers come from all walks of life. While many drunk drivers are men, the number of female drunk drivers is rising and a growing concern. They represent different ages, levels of education, and professional achievement. The socio-economic status and criminal activity of these offenders varies greatly. It must be underscored that the problem is diverse and includes many different segments of the population, so it is essential to have a broad range of countermeasures available to create a comprehensive approach to address the problem.

“There but for the grace of God go I”.

Some people may be inclined to sympathize with the drunk driver because they may have personally had occasion to drink and drive themselves. However, the average person rarely consumes enough alcohol to exceed the legal limit, much less by two or three times. And research shows that most offenders drink and drive several times before they are caught. Sympathy should be reserved for the victims or potential victims who escaped a tragic encounter with a drunk driver, rather than for the drunk driver. The public and politicians need to be more cognizant of the seriousness of the offense and the threat that these drivers pose on the roadways.

“One-size-fits-all” is an effective strategy.

There is no single solution to the drunk driving problem that will address the many types of offenders in need of intervention. Drunk drivers are a heterogeneous group with different levels of risk and need. As such, a variety of programs and policies are needed to effectively address them. A comprehensive approach involving a range of solutions is essential to reduce recidivism and achieve long-term risk reduction. Of paramount importance, agencies need to emphasize that low level interventions are more appropriate for low-risk offenders as research shows that intervening too severely can do more harm than good. For high-risk offenders, sanctions should balance punishment, surveillance, and rehabilitation.

Drunk drivers will not change their behavior.

This myth can arise from observing the uneven and sometimes frustrating progress of treating impaired driving offenders. Gains can be offset by setbacks. Relapse is expected when dealing with alcohol dependency issues but so long as the addiction continues to be addressed, progress is usually made. In order for treatment to be effective, interventions must be tailored to the needs of individual offenders – this is called treatment matching. By matching an offender with the most appropriate interventions (that take into account factors such as gender or cultural background) the chance for a successful outcome is increased. It is equally important to ensure that the programs selected for offenders are matched to their stage of change. Ultimately, the goal is to identify an offender’s individual needs and match them with the most appropriate interventions, as this case-by case approach offers the greatest potential for successful outcomes – i.e., changed behavior in the long-term.

Treatment is “soft on crime”.

It is a commonly held belief that treatment is a “weak” alternative to punishment. However, if treatment were easy, offenders would be lining up to participate. The reality is that many offenders would rather spend time in jail than enroll in treatment because treatment requires sustained effort and a willingness to confront personal issues. Treatment is an effective tool to address one of the root causes of the offending behavior (i.e., abusive drinking or an addiction/dependence on alcohol) and the source of the drinking problem. It can also provide offenders with alternative strategies to address the problem. More importantly, research shows that treatment is a cost-effective solution. It costs less than incarceration and provides a return of $7 for every dollar invested (National Opinion Research Center 1994). Research also shows that interventions that combine a balance between punishment, surveillance, and rehabilitation have the best outcomes (Dill and Wells-Parker 2006).