Forced Blood Draws and Motor Vehicle Safety: “What Country is This?”

By Renán Orellana, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Since there have been cars, there has been drunk driving.

Impaired driving has been a troubling public health problem since the introduction of the automobile in the late 1800s. This involves as much distracted driving, texting and cell phone use behind the wheel, speeding, drugged driving and drowsy driving as much as it does drunk driving, but the latter has been the subject of a number of interventions and campaigns, given alarming statistics associated with motor vehicle safety in the U.S.

Consider population-based data compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a non-profit organization founded by a mother whose daughter was the victim of a fatal drunk driving accident and whose mission is that of engaging in grassroots initiatives and activism.

  • Over 1.2 million drivers were arrested in 2011 for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.

(Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States: 2011”)

  • If all 17 million people who admitted to driving drunk had their own state, it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

(Lacey, John et al. “2007 National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers: Alcohol Results.” Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, December 2009.)

  • In the United States, the number of drunk driving deaths has been cut in half since MADD was founded in 1980.

(National Highway Traffic Safety Administration FARS data, 2012.)

  • An average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before first arrest.

(Centers for Disease Control. “Vital Signs: Alcohol-Impaired Driving Among Adults — United States, 2010.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. October 4, 2011.)

  • On average, one in three people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime.

(National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The Traffic Stop and You: Improving Communications between Citizens and Law Enforcement.” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, March 2001, DOT HS 809 212.)

  • Every day in America, another 28 people die as a result of drunk driving crashes.

(National Highway Traffic Safety Administration FARS data, 2013.)

See more here.

This alarming public health issue has warranted the implementation of policies proven to be effective interventions to combat impaired driving. These include sanctions specific to drunk driving such as administrative license revocations and ignition interlocks for convicted drunk drivers, and such law enforcement approaches as sobriety check points that ensure that law enforcement officials are able identify and catch impaired drivers on the road. States are encouraged to enact penalties for drunk driving in the form of vehicle sanctions, including vehicle seizure, ignition interlock devices, plate or registration confiscation, and vehicle impoundment, and are further encouraged to set the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level to at least  .08 as a standardized way of identifying DUI cases.

Over the past decades, these policy interventions have proven very effective in getting impaired drivers off the road and in reducing underage drunk driving fatalities, as well as impaired driving recidivism. However, have some states gone too fair in enforcing laws and penalties to address impaired driving?

A shocking news report out of Georgia showing law enforcement officials strapping down citizens accused of drunk driving and drawing their blood to determine BAC may very well support this notion. It serves as further proof of the perpetuation of human rights violations through legalized invasive procedures by the police.

DUI check points and routine traffic stops are important in determining whether a driver is intoxicated, but forcibly drawing blood without consent seems inhumane and contradicts the idea of public health as social justice, regardless of whether obtaining such a warrant is supported by state legislation aiming to further the public good. Such an intrusive way of investigating a misdemeanor seems unreasonable, but legislation allowing law enforcement officials to perform these forced blood draws on people who refuse standard breathalyzer tests has been in place throughout the country for several years.

Such inhumane and invasive interventions should prompt us to think about the moral foundations of public health, particularly whether or not our efforts are working to further social justice in our communities, one of the field’s most central pillars.



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