Why do US courts give very harsh sentences for fatal DUI car accidents?
The lack of intention to kill someone is not enough to qualify something as an “accident.” There must also be a lack of expectation. That is, an accident is an event which is neither intended nor expected.
Quote obviously, someone who is drunk does not intend to hurt anyone. But realizing the impairment caused by alcohol, the individual who drinks will (or reasonably should) expect some degree of mental and physical incapacity, which makes them dangerous to others when driving. This realization is more likely to be present while sober; when drunk, the logic often disappears. Thus the state of inebriation itself is insufficient as a defense of one’s actions.
The harshness of the penalty varies from one state to another, and may also be conditioned by other factors related to the specific incident. In general, penalties are severe everywhere (in the US); not just for injury or death arising from the alcohol induced occurrence, but also for the mere condition of inebriation alone, while driving. The driver will therefore, we hope, have an incentive not to drink at all if he or she will be operating a vehicle. If this serves to keep drunk drivers off the road (which it generally does) then we have accomplished the goal of making the roads safer for all.
The drunk driving laws in the US are a classic example of how a grass roots effort by interested parties can force legislative action. In the US, this took shape as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) which was created by Candace Lightner in 1980 following the killing of her daughter by a drunk driver. So compelling was her story that network TV picked it up, and the movement spread across the country. The group lobbied state legislatures heavily to pass strict laws, which they did. The impact has been profound; alcohol related injuries and deaths on the highways have been substantially reduced.
Why The U.S. Cracks Down On D.U.I.
The accident is largely tied to the alcohol. Quite generally in American law, easily preventable accidents are treated almost as if they aren’t accidents. People are expected to exhibit a basic sense of safety, especially towards others.
Commanding a motor vehicle is serious business, and requires sobriety to be done safely. Driving drunk increases the risk to everyone very significantly, because it impairs your judgment. The risk of a crash doubles after just two or three drinks. As you point out, the driver at fault was “not in the full capacity of judgement.” A person not in such a capacity is not fit to drive, and should never take the wheel. So a court (and public opinion) will hold that when you still had a full capacity of judgment, you could have prevented your less than full capacity of judgment, but didn’t. So for that you are held responsible.
A few major incidents. Barring an enthralled clinging to ideology, nothing spurs people to action like high-profile incidents where lots of children die. The most well known in US history was the Carrolton bus crash of 1987, where a drunk driver went the wrong way on a highway and hit a church bus with over 60 kids on board. The bus caught fire and 27 kids were killed, and dozens more burned or maimed. The drunk driver—- at twice the legal limit—- as usual, survived. As he had not meant to kill anyone, he was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and served 10 years of a 16-year sentence.
Incidents like this really got people to realize how dangerous drunk driving could be. We got serious about drunk driving, and Americans love jacking up prison sentences to show how serious we are.
Prevention. We also increased simple DUI penalties, in the hopes of showing how serious the crime is. The case I just mentioned… the driver had been convicted of a DUI before, but hadn’t had any serious consequences. The idea is that by making DUI penalties stronger, even without any accident, we drive home the point that you shouldn’t be doing it.
Social shifts. In the 1980’s, drunk driving became truly a sin in the eyes of the public. Sure, it wasn’t legal, but people really didn’t consider its danger. My older relatives had tales about getting drunk and driving around. Two uncles once got drunk on beer when they ran out. So they drove to the liquor store, got a bottle of vodka, finished it before they got home, and managed to drive back to the liquor store to get some beer. Mindless! Nowadays, they tell stories like that with a twinge of youthful pride, but a lot of regret, and luck that they didn’t kill anyone.
Americans see light sentences for fatal drunk accidents the way that Europeans see America’s health care system: How could they be so immoral as to not fix this!?!?
There’s a lot more driving. The US has far more driving than most European countries. So it’s more crucial to make sure roads are safer.
Sentences are harsher for most things. The US generally has longer criminal sentences, due to a more vindictive spirit, and the old-fashioned delusion that “strong” responses act as a deterrent. Most Americans would say that 10 years for killing someone is not actually a long time, and if you had done it deliberately you should stay in for life, or even be executed.
The Key Takeaway:
It’s striking to note that drink driving offenses are more prevalent amongst 50–75 year olds than amongst 21–30 year olds. There are very few crimes for which that is the case. And it suggests that it’s not the penalties that are keeping the rates low, it’s growing up with a set of social norms that put DUI in the same category as manslaughter.
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