Nobody advocates for drunk driving. If we could wave a magic wand and everybody would voluntarily stop driving drunk, I think most of us would be happy to wave the magic wand.

But we don’t have a magic wand. And people do drive drunk. So the question is, what reasonable methods do we have to reduce drunk driving?

In Wisconsin, we have the SafeRide program. And if somebody is convicted of driving drunk, at some point we either remove their driving privileges, or we require them to install a device on their car that prevents the car from starting if they’ve been drinking. 

The federal government is proposing adding another method – artificial intelligence.

How would this work? According to the version of the spending bill recently passed by the house (November 2021), as described in Business Insider:

The legislation says the new technology must “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired” and “prevent or limit motor vehicle operation if an impairment is detected.”

In other words, while you’re driving, your car will be watching you. If it thinks you’re not paying close enough attention, it will take control of your vehicle, pull it over to the side of the road, and shut it down. If you have a car with a lane deviation warning, you already know roughly how this will probably work. Except instead of just a ding, a certain number of lane deviation warnings will cause the car to take over, pull over, and shut off the vehicle.

Is this a good thing?

I would suggest that the goal (preventing drunk driving) is admirable, but the method is heavy-handed.

First, the selling point is that this technology will make people safer. And while that’s true, this new technology won’t protect the drivers of these new vehicles. This technology will only protect other people from those drivers. People driving used vehicles made before the mandate kicks in won’t be affected at all, and based on a quick look around in morning traffic you can probably see that it will be 20 or more years before the promised protection is universal.

Second, this creates a huge economic impact. The reason we only make people with OWI convictions install ignition interlocks is because this technology is rather expensive – and adding a significant expense to anything disproportionately disadvantages lower-income people. This is also yet another system that’s required to be working for a vehicle to operate, and that system has to be maintained. If you’ve ever had to pay to fix something in order to pass an emissions test, you know that vehicle maintenance is a non-trivial expense.

Third, there’s a hotly-debated legal question involved. If my life would be improved by inconveniencing you, where do we draw the line regarding government intervention? In the past, we’ve decided that people who have an OWI conviction should have their liberties restricted in some way. This is evidence-based, and at least theoretically reasonable. But should we restrict the liberties of everybody – and charge them for the privilege – based on the idea that they may, someday, commit a crime?

Fourth, since this technology doesn’t actually exist yet, we’re creating a mandate for a technology that we don’t know the long-term effects of. Will there be people for whom the technology just doesn’t work properly? Will there be exceptions and edge cases? What if you’re clearly in distress, and driving a seriously-injured or very sick person to the hospital? Does your constant checking of the back seat on an open road at 2:00 AM count as “being inattentive”?

I think that there’s probably a good intention underlying this proposed legislation. We can all agree that drunk driving isn’t a good thing. But as with many government measures, this feels like something that’s being rushed through without proper consideration. Between the significant costs, the operational questions, and the fundamental issues of personal liberty, I think that we should gather much more information before passing such a law.

As a concluding note, It might be tempting to think that I’m against this legislation because I make my living defending people charged with OWIs. And while I am an OWI defense attorney, that doesn’t mean I advocate drunk driving. In fact, my experience as a criminal defense lawyer puts me in a unique position to observe the downstream results of poorly-conceived laws, particularly their effects on lower-income and other disadvantaged people. From real experience in both life and the courtroom, I can say that even the most well-intentioned laws can have unintended consequences – and that’s exactly why I do what I do.

This is also why, whether or not you think this law is a good or a bad idea, I encourage you to notify your representatives in Congress.Laws are there to serve “we the people”, not people to serve the laws. Make your voice heard!

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