According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 17,000 Americans died in alcohol related crashes in 2005, and while 1.4 million drivers were cited for drunk driving, Americans self-reported a whopping 159 million instances of DUI during that year alone. Steps have been taken to combat drunken driving: reducing the legal limit of blood alcohol content (BAC), prohibiting open containers in moving vehicles, stiffening penalties for repeat offenders. While the efficacy of these efforts remains debatable, a 2007 study found that when it comes to penalizing drunk drivers, the speed at which DUI punishments are administered is more important than their severity.
Researchers came to their conclusion by examining 20 years worth of data from 46 U.S. states. They tested the idea of celerity, or the speed of punishment application, by comparing relative DUI fatality statistics occurring under two methods of license revocation—pre-conviction and post-conviction. Their study found that license revocation that happened immediately had a significant impact on alcohol related crash fatalities, while post-conviction revocations, often occurring months after an incident, had no effect on future accidents. They also found that laws specifying mandatory jails terms for DUI had no real effect. Again, the conclusion is somewhat obvious but important: revoking licenses immediately after arrest may lead to a lot of angry, stranded drivers, but it is by far the best way to prevent alcohol-related driving fatalities.
The team found that the effectiveness of speedy punishment held true for all types of drinkers, whether they’d had a couple of beers or were well over the legal limit. The idea of celerity has been a staple of deterrence literature for some time, and this study confirms previous conclusions that demonstrated the value of rapid punishment in reinforcing the illegality of behaviors and serving as an effective deterrent. With communities nationwide struggling to find effective solutions to drunk driving, this new evidence could not have come at a better time. Contrary to what many think, the severity of a given punishment is not nearly important as the speed with which it’s handed out. This should prove doubly helpful for smaller communities looking to affect change in drunk driving patterns as swift punishment often proves more cost-efficient.