Virginia Supreme Court’s “One Free Swerve”: A Loss for Responsible Drivers

Each year 36 people die in Virginia and approximately 700 more are injured in auto accidents due to intoxicated drivers. The cost of alcohol related crashes across the nation amounts to almost $51 billion annually. So what can be done to keep intoxicated motorists off the road? Sobriety checkpoints are one tool that law enforcement officers have, but what can officers do when you call them to report a driver who seems to be driving while under the influence?

Recently, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Virginia Supreme Court ruling that Virginia State Police cannot execute a traffic stop based solely on an anonymous tip claiming that a driver appears to be intoxicated. Police must first observe the driver in question behaving erratically before the officer can legally carry out a field sobriety test, potentially giving drunk drivers “one free swerve”.

This ruling means that police will have a harder time getting drunks off the road before they injure or kill innocent motorists, and DUI statistics can help people understand the impact of this ruling.

How big a problem is drunk driving?

A study by the Department of Transportation’s National Traffic Highway Safety Administration reported some of the following statistics from 2006 regarding the dangers of driving under the influence:

  • 13,470 people were killed in alcohol related auto accidents, which accounts for almost 32% of all traffic related fatalities.
  • 18% of car crash driver fatalities involved illegal drugs.
  • Of the 306 fatal accidents involving passengers aged 0-14, nearly half were traveling with drivers who had a BAC of 0.08% or greater.
  • 45 children aged 14 years or younger were pedestrians or bicyclists when struck and killed by drivers under the influence.

Who is most at risk for driving while impaired?

  • Male drivers are twice as likely as female drivers to be intoxicated with a BAC over 0.08%
  • 19% of young drivers aged 16 to 20 who were involved in fatal car crashes had been consuming alcohol
  • 17% of auto fatalities involving 0-14 year old passengers were alcohol related
  • Drivers involved in fatal crashes with a BAC of 0.08% or higher were eight times more likely to have a prior DWI conviction
  • Motorcyclists of 40-44 years old have the greatest percentage of fatalities with a BAC of 0.08% or higher

The Department of Justice Uniform Crime Report of 2007 estimated that 1.4 million drivers were arrested for DUI, which accounts for less than one percent of the 159 million self-reported cases of impaired driving amongst drivers each year. This demonstrates how many motorists on the road are “getting away” with driving under the influence.

We can help victims of drunk driving accidents

Although it is now more difficult for officers to respond to anonymous tips, responsible drivers are still encouraged to let the authorities know if they do witness unsafe driving. Hopefully the police officer would observe that hazardous driver behaving erratically and execute a traffic stop before the “one free swerve” takes a life. If you or someone you know has been seriously injured in an alcohol or drug related collision, contact Whitehead & Chiocca and let us take your case and help you recover your losses.