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Is a drink driving killing murder?

By William Spaul - posted Friday, 27 April 2012

Few acts better exemplify reckless indifference to the value of human life than drink driving. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.2 million people are killed each year in road accidents, and 50 million more are disabled. Around one third of road accidents are alcohol-related, so there may have already been over 100 million people killed by drink driving - more than the number killed in both world wars combined.

There will be hundreds of millions more deaths and injuries from drink driving, particularly given increased global rates of car ownership, unless something changes.

For too long we have let a legal fiction flourish, namely that drink driving killings are less serious than other killings. This means that those who kill others during say, a robbery will go to gaol for many years, while killer drink drivers stand a good chance of receiving little or no gaol time, even if it is not their first drink driving offence.


But those who lose a family member due to drink driving will feel as much pain as those whose loss is due to other unlawful killings. And perhaps there is no convincing reason someone who kills while influenced by alcohol should receive lesser punishment than someone who kills while influenced by emotion.

Stronger enforcement action might sever the link between drinking and driving. Licence suspension is plainly not enough. Indeed many drink drivers have never held a licence, or continue to drive while disqualified, showing the same disregard for the law as for lives.

In the United States there are more and more prosecutions of drink drivers for murder. That trend partly stems from a case where a seven year old girl was decapitated. The trend is controversial, but US juries are become increasingly unforgiving of drink drivers. And why not? There is nothing more unforgiving than the impact of metal on human flesh.

In Australian jurisdictions the legal definition of murder could easily be interpreted to include drink drive killings. The New South Wales Crimes Act says that murder is committed where the act of the accused causing death was done with reckless indifference to human life.

The rationale for this is that someone who does an act knowing it is likely to cause death is just as blameworthy as someone who did the act intending to cause death. Someone who plays Russian roulette while pointing a gun at someone else, while being indifferent as to the outcome, is just as blameworthy as someone who intends to kill another.

Judges may direct juries that an act is done with reckless indifference if the accused realised that the act would likely cause the death of the deceased. But whether a drink driver realises that drink driving is likely to kill someone or might kill someone, makes little moral difference, just as it makes little moral difference whether there are five bullets, or one bullet, in the gun when Russian roulette is played. In either case there is no justification for taking the risk. The social utility of drink driving is non-existent.


While drink drive killings prima facie sit comfortably within legislative definitions of murder, in many countries killer drink drivers receive special leniency from the law - they will not get 'life imprisonment' as their maximum sentences are capped at much lower levels by traffic legislation, and their average sentences are lower still. But victims of drink driving, and many others, would consider that life imprisonment is often deserved. This would at least prevent offenders from committing further offences during detention, and may deter them from doing so if eventually released.

Opponents of murder prosecutions assert that drink drivers are less culpable than other killers. But these days, almost every adult has at least some knowledge of the dangers of drink-driving and that it is against the law. Choosing to have numerous drinks and then choosing to get into a vehicle, turn the key and drive is choosing to endanger the lives of others. Is it really the case that the combined blameworthiness of all those choices is less than a single split-second choice to throw a punch or pull a trigger? Being drunk clearly does not prevent a decision not to drive - if it did then all drunks would drive.

The average drink driver will have driven under the influence many, possibly dozens, of times before their first arrest. Charging drink drivers, or at least the worst offenders, with murder is probably fair. Concerns about this being too harsh might be reduced if everyone convicted of drink driving was given written warning by a court that if they drink drive and kill someone they could be charged with murder, or if everyone received such a warning on applying for or renewing their licence.

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About the Author

William Spaul is a lawyer with an interest in legal and moral philosophy.

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All articles by William Spaul

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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