Impaired Driving: Another Look

Occam’s Razor is a problem-solving principle which holds that when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.

There are times, however, generally when the “simpler” theory is not working as hoped, that the problem must be revisited.

When viewed from a different angle, often the alternate theory emerges as the better option. These ah-ha moments are often marked by a rueful, “why didn’t we think of that sooner?”

Something of the sort may account for an “out-of-the-box” initiative launched by South Dakota to combat that state’s drunken driving epidemic.

Traditionally, legislators and judges have responded to drunken drivers by separating their drinking from their driving by means of license suspensions or revocations, ignition interlocks, vehicle impoundment, etc. 

South Dakota’s “24/7 Sobriety Project” turns the table on DUIs by separating drunken drivers from their drinking. In essence, 24/7 Sobriety suspends offenders’ “license to drink.”

In South Dakota, all DUI offenders are placed in the 24/7 Sobriety Project as a condition of bail, sentencing, probation, or parole. The program monitors abstinence from alcohol and drug use through a variety of tests, including 1) twice-a-day breathalyzer tests, 2) alcohol monitoring ankle bracelets, 3) and drug patch and urine testing.

Breathalyzer tests are done at 12-hour intervals (once in the morning and once in the evening) at a cost of $2 per day for an average of five months. In 2012, the program was expanded to require the use of ignition interlock devices for some participants.

Offenders can drive all they want but they are court ordered not to drink.

If program participants test positive for substance use, they are immediately subject to a short jail term (usually 1 or 2 days). Failure to show for a scheduled test may result in the issuance of an arrest warrant. Further, offenders’ bond, parole, or probation may be revoked if they fail or skip tests.

The Wall Street Journal reports that since 2005, the program has administered more than 7 million breathalyzer tests to over 30,000 participants. Offenders have passed the test at a rate of over 99%.

In a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the Rand Corporation found that counties using South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety Project experienced not only a 12% drop in repeat DUI arrests but also a 9% drop in domestic violence arrests.

24/7 Sobriety has become a statewide program in both North Dakota and Montana and has drawn praise from federal officials.

Beau Kilmer of the Rand Corporation writes that criminal justice reform requires creating demand for bold ideas about simultaneously reducing incarceration and crime. “Given the prominent role alcohol plays in crime -- and the strong results from South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety program -- suspending one’s ‘license to drink’ seems well worth considering.”

In 2013, drunken driving accidents in my home state of Pennsylvania resulted in 381 deaths and 7,900 injuries.

It may behoove state lawmakers and judges here and elsewhere to consider revisiting the DUI problem from a similarly bold, counterintuitive perspective.

If you experience technical problems, please write to