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Why economic theory tells us that the legal limit for DUI of 0.08 is dangerous and should be raised

The law of diminishing returns is a fundamental principle of economics which is defined as:

  1. The for a continuing effort toward a particular goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of success has been achieved.
  2. (economics) A relationship between input and output, such that adding units of any one input labor, capital, etc.) to fixed amounts of the others will yield successively smaller increments of output.

An example would be security. Assume you live in a neighborhood with one hundred houses, three burglars, no police, and assume a burglar can only burgle one house a night.  With no police, you could assume 3 burglaries a night.  If you add one police officer who can protect 33 houses a night, you would assume the next night you would still have 3 burglaries since 67 houses are left unprotected. If you add 2 police officers, you would still have 3 burglaries because 2 police can only protect 66 houses leaving 33 houses unprotected. The rate is flat. If you add three police, then 99 houses are protected and suddenly there is only one burglary. If you add 4 police then 132 houses can be protected, so there are no burglaries.  After 3.03 police have been hired, you have reached the point of diminishing returns. If you add 5 police you are wasting your money, since 165 houses can be protected and there are only 100 houses.

Now think about the DUI laws.  The Goal of DUI laws is to prevent DUI deaths and injuries.  In the 1970s, the legal limit for DUI was .12, or the level at which most people are considered drunk.  The crime was commonly known as drunk driving. In the 1980s, the legal limit was reduced to 0.10 until about 2000.  In 2000, the legal limit was reduced to 0.08 by then-President Bill Clinton in a zero-tolerance for DUI bill that tied 0.08 to federal highway funds as was done with the drinking age being raised from 18 to 21 in the mid-1980s. DUI deaths dropped from the 1980s steadily until about 2000.  In 2000, the DUI fatality rates began to climb back to levels not seen since the early 1990s.

Why? The vast majority of DUI fatalities occur at 0.15 or higher. So why does lowering the legal limit to 0.08 not reduce DUI fatalities?  It’s simple economics. The law of diminishing returns.  You see most people are not noticeably impaired by alcohol at 0.08.

Many people can pass field sobriety tests like standing on one foot for 30 seconds up to as high as 0.15. If you can stand on one foot for 30 seconds, who exactly are you endangering?

Police Officers now arrest people for DUI who register over 0.08 or greater.  In some jurisdictions, drivers are arrested if they blow over .05 but under .08 and charged as less safe drivers.  Assuming the only factor that has changed is the legal limit, the reason for the increase of fatalities is that the vast majority of people arrested for DUI are between 0.08 to 0.15. It takes an officer an average of 2 hours to arrest someone for DUI.  Field sobriety tests have to be performed, the person searched, handcuffed, the car impounded, and the person transported to jail.

Most police forces are straining to keep police on the street so taking an officer off the road for two hours is a huge blow to manpower. Most DUI task forces in Georgia are less than 10 officers. What happens is while the DUI police officer is fooling around with some who blows 0.08 who isn’t even impaired about 10 or 15 drunk people are driving by. The answer is either to raise the legal limit or to simply ticket people who blow between 0.08 and 0.15, take their license, and tow their car.  This would get the alleged impaired driver off the road and would cut in half the time an officer spends on people who are not drunk so they can focus on the real drunk drivers and thereby reduce DUI fatalities once again.

The Cato institute came to the same conclusion in a study is performed.  The mission of the Cato Institute is to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace. The Institute will use the most effective means to originate, advocate, promote, and disseminate applicable policy proposals that create free, open, and civil societies in the United States and throughout the world.