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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

Should A Drink Driver Who Hits Nobody Be Punished As If They Did?

When driving under the influence of alcohol, drivers are unable to fully control themselves, and lose a significant degree of motor control. In addition to this, their ability to react sufficiently to potential hazards, such a child walking into the road, is vastly decreased. Therefore, it is both dangerous and irresponsible to drive whilst drunk, as a driver have a significantly elevated risk of injuring both others and themselves. This essay considers the case of two drivers to decide whether there should be equal punishments for a drink driver who has killed somebody and a driver who drives home fine. Individual A is completely intoxicated however drives home without issue. Individual B has a similar level of intoxication yet hits a pedestrian, killing them. The aim of this essay is to determine whether the two drivers deserve equal punishment, and from this case aim to conclude to what extent the legal penalties for the drivers should be the same.


This essay may initially seem slightly bizarre and its conclusion obvious. It would seem clear that drivers who hit an individual should be punished more severely. After all, they are individually at fault and therefore deserve punishment. However, encapsulated within such a question is a much more interesting question about the nature of punishment and the nature of morality. A drink driver who fails to cause death or injury through their action currently is liable for up to 6 months of prison or an unlimited fine, however imposition of prison time is somewhat rare. By contrast, a drink driver who does cause loss of life is liable of up to 14 years in prison and a similarly unlimited fine. Punishment is generally much more severe and frequently enforced for drink drivers who kill a person, with the theoretical individual B being much more likely to actually be sentenced to his theoretical maximum prison time. Encapsulated within the different actions of the two drivers who killed pedestrians we get to see different ultimate consequences existing within our current legal frameworks for a fundamentally similar action. It is likely that both individual A and individual B have been similarly irresponsible, yet their punishments ultimately prove to be extremely different. This essay questions whether the significant difference in punishments which we experience should exist, and whilst it ultimately does conclude that different punishments are necessary for the different crimes pragmatically, in a moral world the two punishments would be very similar or the same.


There is little reason to think that the individual A, who avoided hitting the child, did so due to any kind of moral superiority or elevated responsibility relative to that of B. When somebody drink drives it is still generally likely that they will probably make home without incident. The problem underlying the act of drink driving is not any predestined fate of hitting a pedestrian. Instead, it is that it increases the probability of hitting a child, and due to the nature of probabilities it can be and indeed is very likely that a driver generally will be able to drive home safely whilst on another day they may hit a child. Whilst there may be some difference in terms of other variables such as driving skill or ability to function whilst under the influence of alcohol, the difference, over the spread of a population, is not hugely significant. Nearly any individual who drives drunk has a severely elevated chance of hitting an individual. Therefore, the difference between individual B, who hit a child, and individual A, who got off safely, is mostly arbitrary. Individual B merely got unlucky and hit a child whilst Individual A was lucky and did not hit one. The difference between the consequences the two individuals caused is morally irrelevant. It is the act which they have both committed, in deciding to drive whilst drunk, which prescribes immorality of their actions. They have both betrayed their responsibility to society and acted in a way which entails potential severe harm to others. Thus, it is the case that morally it would be just for them to be punished equally.

Thus, the question needs to be asked, if the two individuals have equally betrayed their duty to refrain from doing an action which will likely harm others, and have thus been equally irresponsible, should the law punish them equally? For the law to do so is extremely enticing. In a utopia in which one only gets punished according to how morally irresponsible they have been or using a partially consequentialist framework based upon how much harm they risked to others, the punishment would be similar. Most of the main reasons for prison: punishment for wrongdoing, protection for those who may be affected by further offences and rehabilitation for an offender in order to prevent further offences apply equally to the two individuals. It is extremely enticing to believe that both individuals should be punished equally. Perhaps morally, they do deserve equal punishment.


However, there are unfortunate practicalities which get in the way of the Utopian view of legislation which punishes solely based on moral guilt. Legally implementing equal penalties would require either one or both of the following two legal changes to be implemented. It is necessary to raise the punishment of drink-driving to equate manslaughter or to lower the punishment of manslaughter, at least in the case of drink-driving, in order to be equal to the punishment of drink-driving without hitting anybody. (It is also possible to simultaneously lower the manslaughter penalty in the case of drink driving and raise the penalty for regular drink-driving) Both of these alternatives however can be concluded to be immoral and should not be implemented.

Despite its moral irresponsibility, it is true that drink-driving is somewhat commonplace in society (at least compared to other major infringements of the law) and it will be difficult to eradicate in any meaningful way. Many people get drunk, and then with impaired judgement or due to an inability to correctly gauge their level of intoxication or mere inability to soundly make decisions decide to drink drive, even if when sober they would never drink drive. Whilst this is morally deplorable, they may not be entirely in control of their actions and may act in a way in which they cannot fully control. Whilst it is still their responsibility to ensure that they are never in a position where they will end up driving drunk, it is practically out of proportion to suggest that a regular drink driver should have punishments lasting years as is the case generally with manslaughter.

Moreover, increased punishments have been showed by several studies to not significantly decrease the rate of drink-driving, whilst instead using state resources and funding Instead. Broader enforcement is a significantly more effective mechanism to reduce drink-driving. There would be a significant trade off however due to the increase in the overall prison population. If individuals did routinely go to prison for long sentences, they would be a drain on the state’s, resources and would stop being able to actively contribute to society. Pragmatically, this is undesirable even if to some it may be morally justified. Increased punishments have little practical gain, whilst having the strong downside of leading to increased incarcerations. Therefore, drink drivers should not have their punishment lifted to be equal or in the general vicinity of the current punishments for manslaughter.


Meanwhile, it should still not be the case that individual B, who actually kills somebody, should be punished as if they had drink-driven without any notable consequence. If individual B were to not have full punishment for manslaughter while driving, beyond the increased chance of legal action they would have no incentive to not hit a person. There clearly is a need to try to ensure that people, even if merely due to acting out of self-interest, do not hit others whilst drink-driving. Even if people have impaired judgement and senses whilst driving, they still have some cognitive function, and therefore they should have a strong incentive to drive safely and above all other consequences avoid harming other human life. It is likely an individual behind the wheel would indeed try above all to avoid getting in accidents, so this is not generally applicable to differentiating the morality. However, it does help to ensure that nobody who drink drives would actively try to hit pedestrians and get the same sentence as another person who aims not to and indeed fails to do so. Therefore, the punishments should at the very least be distinct by a significant degree.


In addition to this, there is a certain justice in ensuring that somebody who has caused greater harm will be more severely punished. Whilst this may have still been merely down to probability and odds, if one’s family member is killed by a drink-driver, there is a certain vindication in knowing that the killer has been aptly punished. Such a vengeful application of justice may be unnecessary to some, yet there is a certain karmic force underlying it. There is little reason to think drink-driving should be treated any differently from regular manslaughter, which rightly punishes a person who has caused another to die due to gross negligence. It is very difficult to explain to a family member or loved one of a victim that their loved one’s killer that they are not being punished severely because of an arbitrary moral standard suggesting that individual A and B are equal. Such strict morality when implemented into a law system would create general outrage and would be generally unfeasible. Retribution may perhaps not be an ideal standard which our justice system dishes out, yet it is a standard which people desire and perhaps there is a certain karmic responsibility to implement nonetheless. We once again find that pragmatism must supersede the principle of equal morality, and so a drunk driver who hits somebody cannot have his punishment lowered as far as to the punishment of a drunk driver who fails to hit anyone. Therefore, the punishments should also be significantly different.


Thus, whilst it is morally it is the case that both perpetrators have acted in an equally immoral and irresponsible manner, they cannot have equal punishments. Believers in deontological ethics would likely argue against this, suggesting the law should serve out justice merely based on the morality of individual action. Yet for the reason of the practical considerations involved in lowering the manslaughter sentences in the case of drink-driving, raising the drink-driving punishment to that of manslaughter or having the punishments converge in roughly the centre, the two individuals should have differing punishments. To do otherwise either sends an excessive amount of people to prison, burdening the system and being overall expensive and unnecessary, or fails to duly compensate the victim or differentiate the small difference which does occur whilst somebody is behind the wheel. There is no overlap between the possible sentence lengths where the punishment for drink driving is not too high whilst the punishment for manslaughter is not too low. There should be distinct punishments for individual B and individual A despite their equal moral failure. However, due to the equal moral deficiency of their actions, the two individuals should have more similar sentences than is currently the case. A drink driver who fails to hit people should have his current punishment increased, as in doing so he has endangered others and failed in his duty in society. Above all, the punishments which are often rarely enforced should be more frequently enforced. Moreover, a drink driver who does hit people should have lower sentences than is currently the case (assuming the hitting of pedestrians is unintentional). Whilst he may have been unlucky in hitting somebody, he has acted no less more immorally than an ordinary drink driver. For the law to properly distribute justice therefore the two individuals, individual A and B should have different sentences, yet they should not be as far away from each other as they are currently.


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