No, Grand Forks Herald, Tougher DUI Laws May Not Actually Be Right for North Dakota


The Grand Forks Herald today has an editorial praising Minnesota for their progress in reducing DUI-related fatalities, and lashing North Dakota for failing to achieve the same progress.

The editorial is correct in a top-level sort of way. Minnesota has made tremendous progress on this front. From 1998 to 2017 the state saw a more than 65 percent decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities. North Dakota’s body count has essentially been flat during that same period.

Clearly, North Dakota has work to do.

Still, the Herald uses an odd metric to measure the scope of the problem. For some reason they’re comparing per-capita rates for alcohol fatalities, which just doesn’t make sense: “North Dakota had 6.08 impaired driving deaths per 100,000 people in 2017; Minnesota, meanwhile, had 1.52 per 100,000.”

Things like age and population density in a given state or community can have a big impact on the number of drivers on the road. In a mostly rural state like North Dakota it’s not at all uncommon to have a lot of teenage drivers. In more urban areas, like Minneapolis or New York City, it’s not uncommon to see people rely on public transit until their owner. Or decline to get a drivers license at all.

The better metric for this issue is a rate based on vehicle miles traveled, which is something the National Highway Transportation Administration provides. I charted North Dakota and Minnesota’s rates of alcohol-related traffic fatalities per one million vehicle miles traveled (as well as South Dakota, Montana, and the national average for the sake of comparison) using NHTSA data:

All of the states in our region saw declines in their fatality rates, some larger than others, but as far as North Dakota goes the point I made at the beginning of the post stands.

We’ve still got work to do.

Still, what troubled me about the Herald editorial (aside from choosing the wrong metric by which to measure the problem), is their jab at efforts to end DUI checkpoints and their call for tougher enforcement measures overall.

“During the most recent session of the state Legislature, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have outlawed DUI checkpoints throughout the state,” the Herald writes. “Imagine: A state that ranks No. 3 in the nation for most impaired driving deaths per capita strongly considered outlawing a tool that can keep impaired drivers off the roads.”

But there are good reasons to think that DUI checkpoints do more to inflate overtime pay for law enforcement officers than get drunks off the road. These checkpoints often result in the stop and interrogation of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of drivers yet result in the arrest of very few drunks. Law enforcement has taken to defending them as a deterrent to drunk driving, but all I can see is that they’re a deterrent to drunks driving down the roads where the checkpoints are.

UPDATE: A reader emails: “DUI roadblocks are illegal in MN.  How can they do so well without this wonderful, necessary enforcement tool?” Good point.

The Herald, like many other commentators on this issue, seems to assume that the only proper method for dealing with drunk driving is the stick. Yet some of the Herald’s own reporting indicates that a carrot approach can be very effective as well. An article last year saw a correlation between declining DUI arrests in Grand Forks and the rise of ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

Reporting out of communities like Bismarck and Fargo is finding a similar trend.

It seems that if it’s easier for drunks to find a sober ride home more of them will take a sober ride home.

That’s the carrot approach. If we can do more to facilitate safe rides home for drunks, maybe we can put a bigger dent in North Dakota’s drunk driving problem in a way that doesn’t cost a lot of tax dollars and clog up the court system with a bunch of social drinkers who really don’t belong there.

I understand why the Herald wants tougher enforcement, but I think it’s a bit myopic for that to be the only discussion.