Drunk driving, vs. driving-drunk

by Michael Smith

A keen judge of human nature once observed that the Puritans disliked bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. A similar phenomenon is at work in the moralists' campaign against drunk driving. If the moralists cared about the bear -- in this case, people killed or injured by cars -- they'd be more worried about driving tout court, rather than just the drunk variety.

Indeed, the incoherence of the moralists' position is obvious to the most casual inspection. One hears, over and over, statistics of the following form: "In X% of traffic fatalities, alcohol is involved." So what about the other 100 minus X? What are they, chopped liver? -- Well, close enough, in many cases. Sorry about that. But you see the point. Because they were catapulted into the next world by a sober driver, that's OK with the moralists.

There's a more subtle lapse of logic here, too: That X% comes from analyzing the breath -- or the tissue -- of drivers involved in crashes. In X% of cases, there's found to be some threshold amount of alcohol present (choose your own threshold value; one's as arbitrary as another). So the assumption is made that because the booze is there, it must have caused the accident -- or, more slyly, "contributed" to it (sorry, I already contributed at the office, as they say down at the Department of Transportation).

Now how can the causality be known? Well, the only statistical way you could even begin to establish a case for it would be to compare the alcohol in the blood of drivers who are involved in accidents, with the alcohol in the blood of drivers who reach their destinations without being involved in accidents. In other words, you'd have to know the background before you could tell anything at all from that X% you get from your Breathalyzer or your pathologist.

But nobody, as far as I can see, ever points this fact out; nor has anybody ever tried to measure the background number. So what we know about the importance of alcohol as a factor in car crashes is... precisely zero.

Then what's with all the hysteria? The explanation has to be sought in the realm of psychology.

On some level, I think, we all know what a damned incubus the car has become. Movies tell the tale: cars get crushed, impaled, filleted, incinerated and drowned only less often than attractive young women. At the same time, of course, this realization cannot be permitted into the light of consciousness. The car remains a supremely potent fetish object, and the repository of a huge quantity of alienated libido -- including that most volatile and high-octane form of libido, narcissistic libido. (An old girlfriend of mine, years ago, had a recurring dream in which her car turned into a bathing suit. A slinky, red bathing suit.)

In a situation like this, a common mechanism of resolution is the splitting of the loved and hated object into two objects, a good one and a bad one. (Think of Melanie Klein and the idea of the "good breast" and the "bad breast." -- Okay, don't if you'd rather not.) The bad driver is the drunk driver, the good driver is the sober driver. Everything would be hunky-dory if it weren't for the bad drivers -- except, of course, for those 100 minus X% of the corpses; but presumably we just chalk them up to the will of God, or the laws of Nature, or the inexorable but ultimately beneficent Invisible Hand of the Magical Market.

I have a different paradigm. I think that instead of worrying about people who are driving drunk, we should worry about all the people who are driving-drunk; the people who are running around thought-impaired by the toxic influence of driving. This intoxication has a number of pathological effects on the nervous system. It makes drivers feel more important and more powerful than non-drivers, who can be bullied off the road, not just with impunity, but as of right. It shuts down the perceptual apparatus: all a driver can see of another driver is a metal shell. It impairs the capacity for projection and empathy; all the driver can imagine of another's motives is a primitive tropism to get ahead of the rest of the traffic. It distorts the driver's sense of space and time, and deludes him into believing that he ought to be able to get across town in ten minutes. It narrows his vision and shuts down his cognitive faculties, so that he'll accelerate to reach a red light fifty feet ahead of him.

Compared to the drunkenness of driving itself, the additional impact of a convivial evening might well turn out to be trivial -- if anybody ever studied the matter seriously, instead of just assuming that we know what's going on. But either way, the best scenario of all would be if the driver just stayed home and mixed himself a pitcher of Martinis. The hell with the car, and the hell with the Puritans.

Essays and refections -- contents