The United States leads the world in deaths by drunk drivers. In fact, nearly as many Americans are killed every year by drunk drivers as are by gun violence. Most were killed by good people, just like you and me.
We have a cultural problem in this country when it comes to DUI. We often refer to someone’s “first” or “second” DUI arrest, as if they were rites of passage, while in other countries — such as my native Sweden — the idea that you would have a few drinks and then decide to operate a 2,000-pound machine would be seen as reckless as waving a gun around at the supermarket.
Yet many celebrities, sports figures, business leaders and heroes have one or more DUIs. Likely, many people reading these words have had a DUI. Certainly many more privately can recall an instance or few when, in retrospect, they probably had too much to drink yet nonetheless took the wheel of a car. Many of us live in shameful glass houses, so we are uncomfortable judging or telling others what to do. Indeed, on average a person has driven drunk 80 times before their first crash or arrest. By tolerating DUIs as we do, we accept them. And people are getting killed.
I know. My 15-month old son Liam was being pushed in his stroller not far from my home in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, just seven months ago, when a drunk driver killed him. It was the middle of the day and the 72-year-old driver’s first offense.
She is ludicrously free to drive our roads today.
Liam was a wonderful child. He was playful and loving, very active and, even as a toddler, was learning English, Swedish and Russian. He carried a green, plush frog everywhere he went; when my wife Mishel and I decided in our grief to launch a foundation — Liam’s Life — to explore changes in the law to reduce the likelihood that you would have to suffer the same agony we have, Liam’s green frog became our logo.
More than 10,000 innocent people were killed by drunk drivers in 2015. About 1,200 of them were killed in California, with another approximately 24,000 people injured. The recent legalization of marijuana and de facto decriminalization of hard drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine under California’s Proposition 47 will only make things worse.
As we reduce the legal consequences for being impaired by alcohol or drugs in general, we must draw a firm line that makes clear that freedom does not extend to driving a car. We need to change the law.
As the Associated Press recently reported, the state of Utah has just enacted a law to change the threshold at which one is considered legally impaired to drive a motor vehicle from 0.08 percent of their blood content being alcohol to 0.05 percent. Washington state is exploring a similar move. And this is in comparison to many countries, particularly in Europe, where the limit is 0 percent.
The point isn’t to “punish” people who aren’t drunk. Rather, it’s to say science shows us that at 0.05 percent, most people are impaired, and you need to find another way home. Simply put, the tighter standard will make it that much harder for people to say, “I’m good,” and drive off sloshed. We want people to make decisions about how to get to the bar, and how to get home, when they’re sober — not when they’re already three drinks in.
In the era of Uber and Lyft, there is simply no excuse to drive drunk.
The woman who struck Liam is responsible for taking our son’s life. However, when we fail to send the message that drunk driving will not be tolerated because of parochial worries like reduced spending on alcohol or tourism, we are complicit in the lives lost as a result.
Because we have shown we cannot make good decisions when we are already drunk or high, and over 10,000 innocent people a year are dying as a result, we need changes in the law to force better, earlier decision-making. Adopting a 0.05 blood-alcohol content standard is an easy way to save lives by forcing people to make better decisions.
Marcus Kowal, a mixed martial arts fighter, gym owner and entrepreneur, is co-founder of Liam’s Life Foundation, based in Hawthorne.