I had a coworker with a drinking problem. The problem was so severe that he frequently arrived at work already drunk.  On one occasion, he actually got into a car accident in the parking lot. When we went outside to investigate, it was obvious to us that he would be charged with DUI [driving under the influence of alcohol, a serious offense] if we called the police.  However, he had enough problems already, without having to deal with a criminal record.  The accident victim was reluctant to call the police.  Should we?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

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  1. John Hooker says:

    Drunk drivers are dangerous. They kill about 10,000 people a year in the US and injure countless others. To maximize overall welfare, as required by the utilitarian principle, we must try to keep this driver (call him Jack) off the road while he is drunk.

    The obligation is clearest when we see an intoxicated person driving or about to start driving, in which case the utilitarian argument for calling 911 is overwhelming. However, Jack has already arrived and will presumably sober up before he drives home. The issue is whether to call the police to report the accident and his intoxication.

    The very negative expected utility of allowing Jack to drive while drunk justifies a great deal of effort to prevent it. If this can be accomplished without calling the police, fine, because it avoids compounding his troubles with a criminal record. But we have to acknowledge that Jack regularly drives while drunk, and I can’t think of another way to prevent him from doing it again.

    We might give Jack’s family an ultimatum: if he drives while drunk one more time (and we know about it), we will report his accident to the police with full details. Maybe the family will take the necessary steps to keep him off the road while drunk. But without a blood alcohol reading on the spot, it is unlikely the police would pursue the matter, because it is too hard to get a conviction. His family will know this, and they might not do anything anyway, because they have already allowed the problem to persist.

    We could call 911 the next time we see him driving drunk. But chances are that we won’t witness the next time, and since we know he will drive while drunk again, this is as dangerous as seeing him and not calling 911.

    The risk of an accident outweighs the legal consequences to Jack. If convicted, Jack will probably get mandatory rehabilitation and monitoring rather than a jail term (if this is the first offense), which is exactly what he needs. If it is a repeat offense, he will get harsher treatment, but in this case the lighter treatment obviously doesn’t work anyway.

    I see no ethical alternative to reporting the accident now. If the accident victim is willing to do it, so much the better. If Jack starts to drive off, we can block his car or take his keys. This is not a violation of autonomy, because interfering with unethical behavior doesn’t compromise autonomy. It’s unclear that one can exercise agency while intoxicated anyway.

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