A testable hypothesis of deterrence theory is that efforts to increase the expected cost of criminal activity by increasing the threat of punishment should, other things being equal, reduce the crime rate. In this paper, we examine whether the incidence of drinking and driving is responsive to escalation of the punitive threat. The recent national campaign against drunk driving provides a natural experiment in which to test the predictions of deterrence theory. Using state level data over the 1975-1986 period, we report no conclusive evidence that any specific form of punitive legislation is having a measurable effect on motor vehicle fatalities. We report suggestive evidence that multiple laws designed to increase the certainty of punishment (e.g., sobriety checkpoints and preliminary breath tests) have a synergistic deterrent effect. The most striking finding is that mandatory seat belt use laws and beer taxes may be more effective at reducing drunk driving fatalities than policies aimed at general deterrence.
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