The Morality of Drunk and Drowsy Driving

Driving while sleep deprived can be as dangerous as driving while drunk. Why are drunk drivers treated like the devil incarnate while drowsy drivers barely raise an eyebrow?

There is a reasonable case for having drunk driving illegal and ignoring drowsy driving: since the former is much easier to objectively measure, the cost of enforcement is lower. Legality is not what I’m talking about, though. If I’m at the pub, have had a few and declare that I’m going to drive home, there’s going to be an uproar. How could I do such an irresponsible thing?

If I’m at the office, admit to not having slept in 30 hours, and make the same declaration (perhaps half-joking that I hope to make it home without falling asleep), people might tell me to be careful, but will not attempt to stop me or even question the morality of my decision.

I can think of five possible explanations for this:

1.      People don’t know that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving.

2.      Drinking is a demerit good, and people are thereby more willing to criticize its negative externalities.

3.      People think drink driving is immoral because it is illegal.

4.      People have been inundated with anti-drunk driving propaganda* and have internalized it.

5.      People really feel the same way about drunk and drowsy driving, but criticism of the former is socially sanctioned while that of the latter is not.

I don’t think 1 works, since when I’ve made this argument to people, they’re still inclined to see drunk and drowsy driving as morally asymmetric. They get that look of cognitive dissonance as they realise their moral judgements aren’t entirely consistent. As for 2, I’ve seen the anti-drunk driving reaction among twenty-something New Zealanders many times. This is not a demographic which sees drinking as a demerit good.  

I’m going for some combination of 3, 4 and 5. As a libertarian, this displeases me greatly.

*I wish there were a less morally-charged word for what I mean, but there isn’t. 

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6 Responses

  1. Intentionality? Since there’s so much propaganda, I know that you know that drunk driving isn’t safe and that you’re willfully putting others at risk by doing so. Not the same with drowsy driving. Some moral intuitions seem to come down to intentionality, might be the case here too.

  2. Quite likely a part of the story.

  3. First, let me commend you on making an interesting post. Let’s begin by agreeing that some circumstances may warrant that drowsy driving is just as immoral as drunk driving. However, the legal pitfalls of being in an accident will likely not be as severe as long as no alcohol was involved. As a libertarian you have observed that the government has become a passion-fueled entity, resulting in the absence of reason. This entity plays on the passions of people in order to fulfill an agenda. The agenda, more often than not, involves the legislation of morality that typically defies logic. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Take a look at the following two hypothetical situations: Person ‘A’ makes a choice to drink in a social setting, serving no benefit other than to satiate himself with mind-numbing drinks and then decides to drive home. Tragically, he kills someone in an accident. What a tragic and irresponsible choice. His so-called friends did nothing to stop him, in spite of the inundation of the “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” commercials we have all seen. He will do some serious prison time. He made a foolish choice but on the same token let’s just assume that basically he not a bad person.

    Now let us turn to Person ‘B’. He is coming off of a double shift because, for whatever circumstance, his relief never showed up. The company has a policy that you must vacate the property when you are clocked out (this is usually for insurance purposes). Several of his coworkers are obviously coming off shift. Everyone is tired and is just anxious to get home. Because he just pulled a double, Person ‘B’ is exceptionally tired. Some of his coworkers know this but nobody says anything. Now it is his turn to be in that awful accident. Somebody gets killed. The well-meaning company man goes to trial and he too could face jail time because a fatality was involved (though he likely will not because, well, he was not drunk).

    On the surface, we have a completely self-serving interest versus interests serving a collectivist mantra. The collective wins out every time. Yet the equalizer is the same. Both examples end in needless, tragic, and preventable death. We must, as people, look into ourselves for what is a greater good. We lose our humanity when we turn over the greatest part of ourselves to government. If you are out having a good time, do it with friends and make sure one of you is a designated SOBER driver. If you are in a situation where you or someone else is too tired to drive, put your heads together and figure out a way to get home SAFELY.

    Are we so lazy that we need government to provide litmus paper regarding what is right and what is wrong? As adult human beings, we should already know. The older I get, the more I realize that there is no way we can get through life exclusively on our own. We ultimately need each other and there is no reason that we need a government to legislate in what ways we are to fulfill these needs. These examples may hit close to home for a lot of us but the fact of the matter is that in either case, somebody had a loved one needlessly killed. Both tragedies were preventable. Are you too tired or drunk to drive? Find a friend, co-worker or taxi service. We should all have at least that much common sense. The golden rule is not in the law books because it actually makes sense, regardless of your race, religion, or socio-economic background.

  4. As a commercial truck driver, I have had first-hand experience with driving when I was too tired and really should have been in bed sleeping. . . I have come closer to death driving half-asleep than I have when I was young and drank. . . for example. . . driving down I-5, window rolled down to let the cold air in, nodding off at the wheel, and waking with a start, realizing I don’t remember the last 5 miles. . .

    The immoral part of drunk driving is the laws against it – it is penalizing somebody because of what they “might” do – they “might” cause an accident, they “might” hurt someone. . . that is the textbook definition of ludicrous.
    Hell, every time I go out in public, I “might” knock the dogslobber out of some idiot for being an idiot. Does that mean every time I go out in public I should be busted, lose my car and possibly my job (due to lack of transportation and having to spend my rent money on excessive fines)? Poppycock!

  5. In AZ, driving tired IS the same as driving drink: DUI (driving under the influence) — in this case lack of sleep. Everyone learns to avoid answering Officer Friendly’s concern of, “Are you feeling OK? You look tired. Getting enough sleep?”

  6. John S: yep.

    Draco: I’m not quite sure what I think about criminalizing risky behaviour. On the one hand, no harm no foul. On the other, there seem to be situations in which the wrongdoer couldn’t possibly compensate the victim and so banning extremely risky things may be justified. If you fire a gun randomly down a moderately crowded street and hit someone, can you really compensate the victim? There’s probably some level of compensation to my family that would make me indifferent to being shot, but I don’t think many people could afford to pay it, even if they work for the rest of their lives to do so.

    If we could better measure dangerous driving, I would definitely prefer to ban that than drunk driving. Banning drunk driving may be better than nothing. Though I do think the limits on the amount you can drink are too low, at least here in New Zealand.

    Fascist Nation: Interesting, I wonder if that has an effect on how people think about the relative morality of drunk and drowsy driving…

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