Just Pay a Fine and Move Along: The Amorality of Drunk Driving

Recently, the “choose-your-ride” car (pictured here) has been roaming around downtown Durham and Duke University. The car seeks to reduce drunk driving by posing a choice between a $20 taxi or $1,000 fine. At first glance, this seems like a good strategy and it may indeed do some good. However, the car seems to missing one important element and it is the topic of Dan Ariely’s new book: morality.

In “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” Ariely argues that morality matters. He explains how criminal behavior is not a simple cost-benefit analysis, and the threat of punishment only seems to work well when enforcement is nearly certain and extremely severe.  Given that 300,000 of the Americans arrested for drunk driving every year are re-offenders, it seems that the threat and actual experience of consequences are not working so smashingly. Overall, drunk driving is rampant in the states. There are 900,000+ arrests a year. That’s arrest alone! The number of people driving drunk is much higher.

Drunk driving is not a niche offense; it is a social phenomenon that many see as a perfectly acceptable behavior. In movie The Hangover, Zach Galifinakas captures many American’s thoughts on drunk driving when he fondly remembers the night before and laughs it off saying, “Driving drunk, classic!” Many Americans simply feel no moral outrage with drunk driving, especially if they or their friends are the drivers. And what troubles me is that attempts like the “choose-your-ride” car do nothing to address this moral hole in the American conscience. According to Dan Ariely’s research on cheating, people cheat just as long as they can see themselves as good people. It’s no wonder people keep driving drunk, because society has done nothing to convince people that it is wrong.

Here are three specific ways this car fails to appeal to morality:

It makes it a choice. Think of other moral violations such as cheating in a marriage. For many, to even contemplate the idea of marital infidelity would be morally taboo.  It should be the same with drunk driving. People engage in cost-benefit analyses for many actions, but when the action is in the moral domain this happens to a far lesser degree. When something is in the moral domain, hardline rules and concerns for one’s self-concept take over.

It puts a price on the crime. It turns a moral issue into a question of whether you want to pay $1,000 or if you can outwit the cops. According to the message sent by this car, you are not a bad person if you drive drunk. Instead, you are simply a person who is willing to pay a $1,000 fine.

It removes moral feelings. In chapter 9 of “The Upside of Irrationality,” Ariely discusses how thinking of situations like a math problem (rational thinking) can lead to less morality, because moral action is often driven by feelings. Here, the only feeling the car potentially activates is fear and the mathematical nature of the appeal might reduce any potential moral feelings people might have to begin with.

 

So what can we do?

Like with most socio-political issues, it is easy to criticize others’ solution and hard to put forth your own. Next week, I’ll attempt to put forth my own potential solutions to transform drunk driving into a moral issue.  In the meantime, what do you think?  Do you know people who chronically drive drunk? Can drunk driving be turned into something that is globally seen as morally detestable? If you have any solutions, ideas or articles you think would serve the blog, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to include them in part 2.

~Troy Campbell~