Clyde Haberman raises a good point in today’s New York Times: Why does Plaxico Burress potentially face years for illegally possessing a dangerous weapon (even if chances are slim he’d do that time), while Staten Island Congressman Vito Fossella got just a few days for illegally driving a dangerous weapon?
He writes: “But cars kill, too, especially when a drunk is at the wheel. About 13,000 Americans are killed every year by what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls “alcohol-impaired drivers.”
The second sentence raises a point that may seem semantic but is, I think, important. The majority of people who die in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. do so in what are known as single-vehicle crashes. So it seems imprecise to say they are “killed by” an impaired driver, when they are in fact the driver. A number of these fatalities will, of course, be passengers; strictly speaking, they are victims (although often complicit) of a drunk driver. But even so we can hardly conclude that 13,000 people a year are killed by drunk drivers, unless we imagine the impaired driver as a kind of separate self. But this phrase crops up all the time in the news.
My problem with this usage, apart from its strict factual and semantic inaccuracy, is that it subtly shifts the risks that impaired driving brings away from the individual, and onto some unknown “other” driver, which may in its own way contribute to the behavior. This is not to say that drunk drivers do not exact a huge and terrible toll on people in other vehicles (and outside of the vehicle). But, statistically speaking, the greatest risk drunk driving poses is to the actual driver himself (and any passengers). It may sound more dramatic to imply that there were 13,000 sober people in traffic who were killed by drunk drivers, but it doesn’t really help get us any closer to the root of the problem — the driver with the key in his hand, his own greatest risk.