On DUI Standards, How Low Should You Go?

Last month, the Utah legislature passed, and Utah’s governor signed, a measure reducing Utah’s standard for driving under the influence of alcohol.  Under the new Utah standard, which takes effect in December 2018, Utah’s threshold for drunk driving will be a blood alcohol level of .05 percent.  In Ohio, and most states, you can be charged with drunk driving if your minimum blood alcohol limit is .08 percent.

two-cups-of-beer-in-barIn Utah, the debate about lowering the level was a familiar one — on one side, people who have been personally affected by a drunk driver, as well as health and transportation advocates who think that lower standards will produce safer roadways and fewer accidents, and on the other, people in the tourism and hospitality industries who think that tougher standards will hurt their businesses.  The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all states lower their limits to .05 percent, contending that the stricter rules will deter people from drunk driving.  The American Beverage Institute, on the other hand, argued that a 120-pound woman could be at the .05 level after only one drink, and that a person driving with a .05 blood alcohol level is less impaired that a person driving while talking hands-free on a cell phone.

Part of the area of disagreement is that blood alcohol levels are a variable measure of illegal intoxication — because the same quantities of alcohol consumed will affect different people differently.  Men typically can drink more than women without hitting the limit, and heavier people can drink more than lighter people.  And, some people also question whether lower standards really will deter dangerous drunk driving, rather than simply ensnaring people who had two beers with friends after work — when the real road hazards are the people who are grossly intoxicated and are far over both the .05 percent limit and the standard .08 limit.  Often, the most serious accidents seem to involve serial violators who have been arrested multiple times for DUI violations but never seem to be deterred from drinking and driving, no matter what the standard is.

Drunk driving is one of those areas where there has been a sea change in public perception in my lifetime.  For years, the legal limit in most states was .15 percent, and drunk drivers were often tolerated by police — who might just escort the impaired driver home — and even were the subject of TV sitcom humor.  The recognition that drunk driving is dangerous and can be fatal, is unfair to other drivers, and needs to be stopped was a positive development.  And while some chronic cases keep drinking and driving, I think most people are very sensitive to the need to avoid even putting themselves, and other drivers, at risk, and either go with designated drivers or with Ubering it after a night on the town.

Is .05 percent the right standard?  I don’t know, but I think anything that gets people talking about drunk driving, and thinking about whether they should have one more drink and then drive, is a good thing.

Is Porn A Public Health Crisis?

Utah’s state legislature has passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis, and yesterday Utah’s governor signed it.

ip01091The resolution doesn’t ban pornography in Utah — with the volume of porn available on the internet and through various media outlets, it’s hard to see how that could be accomplished, anyway — but it does seek to highlight what it calls an epidemic.  The resolution says that porn “perpetuates a sexually toxic environment” and “is contributing to the hypersexualisation of teens, and even prepubescent children, in our society,” and speakers at yesterday’s signing ceremony argued that porn also undermines marriages and contributes to sexual aggression.

Utah, which is a majority Mormon state, has always long been one of the most socially conservative states in America, and an “adult entertainment” trade group called The Free Speech Coalition said that Utah’s declaration is an “old-fashioned” morals bill that ignores that porn watchers tend to have more progressive views on sexuality and women’s rights and that ready access to porn correlates with a decline in sex crimes.

It’s hard to see how anyone could plausibly argue that pornography is a public health crisis in the same way that, say, the Zika virus or Ebola are.  Porn isn’t randomly striking people down or causing microcephaly or other serious health conditions through mosquito bites, and if there is such a thing as “porn addiction” it sure isn’t as widespread or destructive as alcoholism or drug addiction.  Clearly, there are more serious targets of our public health spending than porn.  And there obviously are free speech concerns at issue, too, that the law has wrestled with since one Justice of the Supreme Court famously declared that he might not be able to craft a legal definition of pornography, but he knew it when he saw it.

Still, I think anyone who pooh-poohs the fact or significance of the increasing prevalence of porn — soft, hard, and even violent — in our society might be missing the point.  “Dirty books” and “dirty movies” have always been around, but they sure are a lot more accessible these days, available with a few clicks of a mouse or TV remote control unit.  Anybody who watched HBO, as we do, can’t help but notice how graphic the depiction of sexual activity and sexual situations has become, and broadcast TV isn’t far behind.

There’s a reason pornography is euphemistically called “adult entertainment.”  Parents have a legitimate interest in protecting their children from exposure to porn until the kids have a chance to learn about sex in a more neutral, less charged, less graphic way.   No one wants their kids to think that the scenarios presented in porn are a normal representation of sexual activity in a loving relationship.  That’s not old-fashioned, it’s common sense.

What Century Is This, Anyway?

Today Utah executed a death row inmate by firing squad.  That’s right — by firing squad.  In this case, a five-member firing squad accomplished the execution, shortly after midnight Mountain Time.

Utah is one of only two states that still permit death by firing squad, and then only for a few “grandfathered” death row inmates.  It is hard to understand why the method has been eliminated for all but “grandfathered” inmates, but that is Utah’s law.  Even more curious, the firing squad apparently has been selected as the execution method of choice by other “grandfathered” Utah inmates who have that option.

Why would you choose death by firing squad, as opposed to death by lethal injection?  It may be because the decision highlights, at least in part, the anachronistic nature of the death penalty.  Death by firing squad takes us back a century or more and seems more suited to dusty Central American courtyard scenes in the 1880s than the 21st century American world of computers and the internet.

The use of firing squads is not only anachronistic, it also is deeply troubling for other reasons.  How do you recruit members of the firing squad?  If it is done by volunteers, what does it tell you about the people who would volunteer to fire bullets into a target on the chest of a bound man?  And why would we want anyone who has done that deed to be walking among the general public?