If Minnesota's so tough on drunk drivers, why do so many of us still drive drunk?

Our laws are some of the strictest in the nation, but it doesn't necessarily translate to fewer DUIs.

Our laws are some of the strictest in the nation, but it doesn't necessarily translate to fewer DUIs. Getty Images

Minnesota does not mess around when it comes to drunk driving.

Personal injury law firm Siegfried and Jensen ranked each state by the cumulative weight of their DUI laws – fines and jail time for first and second offenses, what constitutes a felony, how long authorities will yank your license, and more. Taken together, Minnesota’s policies ranked the toughest in the nation. 

If you get caught driving drunk here, your first offense gets you 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. In more lenient states – like Wisconsin – you don’t get any jailtime for your first offense, and you only have to pay $150. Wisconsin was ranked 43rd.

In dead last is Wyoming, where your third time getting caught drunk driving will only get you a $750 fine and about a month behind bars. That’s a third of the jail time you’d get if your first offense happened to be here.

But before we start feeling self-righteous, remember that tough laws don’t always correlate with lawful behavior. Our state boasts nearly 570 DUI arrests per every 100,000 drivers. Wisconsin, for its softer touch, has pretty much the same arrest rate. In Ohio (No. 22), where you pay $250 and get three days in jail on your first offense, that number is closer to 190. The study also claims Minnesota has the highest percentage of repeat offenders.

And it’s hitting us hard. Last year alone, alcohol was involved in over 4,000 crashes, nearly 2,200 injuries, and more than 120 deaths on Minnesota roads. A study by the Department of Public Safety put the combined cost of the destruction somewhere around $284 million – to say nothing of pain, suffering, and lost lives.

If you’re wondering how Minnesota’s laws can square with its imperfect reality, you wouldn’t be the first. Last year, researchers took a measure of state policies, enforcement, and crash data from 2010 to 2015 to determine if stricter state laws really do mean safer streets. Generally, they do. The study found that increased strictness directly correlated with increased reduction in alcohol-related fatalities.

But as University of Alabama researcher Russell Griffin told Reuters, there’s a limit to how well these work as a deterrent. Mostly because alcohol explicitly limits your ability to make good decisions based on facts.

“There will be those individuals who will decide not to drive while impaired in order to avoid the consequences… That said, there will still remain those individuals who are willing to take the risk of driving while impaired,” Griffin said.

As MinnPost pointed out, stopping drunk driving usually means instigating some kind of broad, cultural change. It has to become less okay socially, not just legally. And by and large, thanks to new laws, arrests, and awareness campaigns, it has – at least when compared to the ’60s and ’70s.

But sometimes there’s still a disconnect on the individual level. Mothers Against Drunk Driving claims the average DUI arrestee has already driven drunk over 80 times by the time she’s first booked. If it takes until the 81st to introduce the fear of getting caught, real change is going to take a while.