drunk driversOn the way to the gym this morning, I heard some disturbing news on the radio: John Knowlton, 27, of Onset, Mass., was flown by medical helicopter to Massachusetts General Hospital after he sustained serious injuries when a drunk driver, who had five previous drunk-driving arrests on his record, smashed into a car he was a passenger in, according to police.

The drive was Carlos J. Owen, 51, and he was arrested for operating under the influence of alcohol, serious bodily injury resulting; negligent operation of a motor vehicle; and leaving the scene of an accident after causing personal injury.

This raises an interesting question: how many times do you have to drive drunk to get arrested for it six times?

Intrepid blogger that I am, I did some research on the topic and it turns out that economist Steven Levitt covered it in his recent book "Superfreakonomics". According to Levitt's research (based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), in the United States, there is just one arrest for every 27,000 miles driven while drunk.

That means that, over the course of his life, Mr. Owen has, unless he is just exceptionally unlucky in getting caught while driving drunk, driven an astounding 162,000 miles under the influence. Even if he gets caught five times as often as the average drunk driver, that's still 32,400 miles of inebriated operation of a motor vehicle.

All of which raises the question: Why in the world should someone who has in all probability driven over 100,000 miles drunk still have a license?

Somewhere in the sentencing guidelines for drunk driving there has to be an allowance made for just how unlikely drunk drivers are to get caught, and how often, therefore, people who do finally get caught are likely to have driven drunk.

Sure, plenty of people make mistakes and get busted for driving drunk once. But if you can get thrown in prison for life in California for stealing Twinkies three times, you ought to be able to lose your license for a decade if you drive drunk twice.

How does this tie into personal finance? Glad you asked. According to the NHTSA, "Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost the public an estimated $114.3 billion in 2000, including $51.1 billion in monetary costs and an estimated $63.2 billion in quality of life losses. . . The societal costs of alcohol-related crashes in the United States averaged $1.00 per drink consumed. People other than the drinking driver paid $0.60 per drink."

Less drunk driving could mean cheaper drinks for those of us who do drink responsibly.

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