U.S. Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho had the unhappy experience of being arrested in Alexandria, Virginia for DUI on Sunday, December 23rd, at 12:45am, after failing to stop at a red light. His reported blood alcohol level was 0.11 percent, somewhat above the 0.08 percent legal limit. Crapo later expressed deep regret for the incident. The episode has since been recounted in numerous TV, online, and newspaper reports.
Not the least interesting aspect of the incident is that Crapo (pronounced CRAY-poe) is a Mormon. Contrary to prevailing impressions, however, survey studies show that Mormonism is not a wholly abstemious faith community. A 1989 survey, for example, found that about half of adult Mormons sampled (49.3 percent) had consumed alcohol within the past year, including 31 percent reporting drinking within the past 30 days. Sentiment toward alcohol in the Mormon community isn’t quite as bone dry as U.S. popular opinion might have imagined either. A 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that only a little more than half (54 percent) of Mormon respondents thought “drinking alcohol” was “morally wrong,” 38 percent thought it “not a moral issue,” and six percent thought it “morally acceptable.” These frequencies contrasted with Mormon views of abortion, for example, where 74 percent of respondents selected the “morally wrong” response.
Driving under the influence is – by some measures, at least – not an altogether infrequent occurrence in America. Indeed, drinking and driving can even be regarded as a “built-in” feature of our cultural system in some sense. For instance, restaurant and bar patrons don’t typically walk to and from these venues. Arranging for a designated driver — one way DUIs are avoided — is usually a practice reserved for special occasions like New Year’s Eve and not a routine precaution accorded all out-of-the-home drinking occasions. It follows that more than a few ordinary Americans from time to time confront the problem of assessing whether their evening’s alcohol consumption poses a risk to themselves or others if they get behind the wheel. Inevitably, some fraction of those judgments will be mistaken. The FBI’s “Crime In The United States” statistical report estimated there were 1,412,223 arrests for DUI in the U.S. in 2010. A recent article in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report estimated that four million Americans engaged in at least one episode of driving when they’ve “had perhaps too much to drink” in 2010. Based on the same self-report data, this MMWR article’s authors projected a total of 112 million alcohol-impaired driving episodes on U.S. roadways in 2010. These are of course big numbers.
Yet the riskiness of the average driving-under-the-influence episode is actually quite low. The MMWR article previously cited attributed almost 11,000 traffic fatalities to alcohol in 2010. Recall that there were 112 million projected driving-under-the-influence occasions that year. Hence, the likelihood of a traffic fatality resulting from a single driving-under-the-influence episode may be computed by dividing the 11,000 fatalities by the 112 million episodes – which works out to a risk of bit less than one chance in 10,000. Risk of arrest is also relatively low, although considerably higher than the mortality risk. The FBI’s previously mentioned 1,412,223 arrests represent about 1.2 percent of MMWR’s estimated 112 million impaired driving episodes in 2010. So small a chance of arrest on any given occasion may help explain the cultural persistence of the driving under the influence practice in America — although the same MMWR report noted that the practice’s rate of occurrence has been declining in recent years.
Many of us may associate the concept of drunk driving with some idiot swerving in and out of traffic at high speed. Yet there was no mention of speeding or other reckless driving in connection with Crapo’s arrest. It’s not unlikely Crapo’s mistake arose from a momentary lapse of attention to driving. Simple inattention to the driving task is one of the serious risks of driving after having consumed a little too much alcohol. The event’s late hour – just short of 1am — also suggests that ordinary fatigue may help explain missing that red light. I’ve met Mike Crapo and – despite being an Idaho Democrat myself – found him to be a nice enough guy. Idaho’s population is sufficiently small that it’s not unusual for ordinary citizens to have pressed the flesh and exchanged a few words with elected officials, even U.S. Senators. He’s a respected political figure in Idaho and I’m sure, barring any other untoward revelations, his political career will survive this setback. The event may even humanize his image a little in some quarters. I wish him well.