Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
On Christmas Eve, 1966, my godfather smashed his car into a tree and killed himself. He was drunk. The best that could be said of his sorry exit from this earth was that unlike so many other drunk drivers, he didn’t take anybody with him.
You might think this would make me very concerned with drunk driving laws and you’d be right. But you’d be wrong if you think it has made me an advocate of the continuing trend to reduce allowable levels of drivers’ blood alcohol content (BAC) from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent.
It’s not that I wouldn’t be in good company. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have lobbied vigorously for lowering the limit to .08, while the American Medical Association wants it lowered to 0.05 and the Department of Health and Human Services wants it knocked down even lower to 0.04. But the evidence these good folks cite to support their new drinking laws just doesn’t wash.
True, the number of what the NHTSA calls "alcohol-related deaths" has shown a steady and significant decline since the early 1980s. During that time, a number of states — now totaling 13 — have screwed down the legal BAC limit from 0.1 to 0.08.
But does this mean there’s a connection? The key word is "deaths." In fact, traffic deaths in general have been going down for years as a result of safer cars and higher seat belt usage rates. So it only makes sense that those from any given cause, including alcohol, would be declining.
A better measure is alcohol-related collisions. This number has gone down just a bit, and it’s not at all clear it has to do with those few states lowering their BAC limits.
It’s not that drivers don’t show signs of impairment at levels below a BAC of 0.1. Indeed, research has shown impairment at levels of 0.04 or even lower. I drink so little alcohol myself that I could probably be impaired driving by a brewery and smelling the smoke stack exhaust.
Rather, the issue is should we put out a net so wide and so tightly-woven as to sweep up huge numbers of people or should we concentrate on those most likely to create carnage on the streets?
The net analogy is not a bad one. Even advocates of a 0.08 BAC limit admit that drivers below the level of .1 rarely drive erratically, hence the only way to catch them will be putting up more police roadblocks and doing more random breath testing. And what will we get for these pesky little violations of drivers’ privacy?
Dr. H. Laurence Ross, a professor at the University of New Mexico and author most recently of Confronting Drunk Driving, estimates a potential increase of 60 percent of DWI offenders (legally-speaking) under 0.08 with the possibility of no decrease in fatalities. The reason is that the potential of alcohol to impair drivers and cause accidents is directly proportionate to the amount consumed.
According to a recently released study from the Harvard Injury Control Center, "Among all male drinking drivers who were killed, 67 percent had BACs of 0.15 or above. Among young adult male drivers (ages 20-34), 41 percent had BACs of at least 0.20, or twice the legal limit in most states."
Lower BAC advocates note that about 3,000 fatalities each year are caused by drivers with BACs of less than 0.1. But this is misleading. The vast majority of fatalities are caused by people with no measurable alcohol in their systems at all, yet they still managed to kill someone.
For all we know, the drivers who killed those 3,000 people would have done so just as readily without the aid of liquor. Ironically, one opponent of .08 BAC laws is MADD founder Candy Lightner. In 1992 she wrote, "If we really want to save lives, let’s go after the most dangerous drivers on the road. Putting our trust in new laws and regulations that attack only the tip of the iceberg will not make our highways safer."
Lightner has been branded a traitor by MADD, especially since two years after writing those words she became a lobbyist for the liquor industry. Nevertheless knows whereof she speaks. The man who ran down her own 13-year-old daughter in 1980 has been arrested several times for drunken driving, each time with a BAC of 0.2 or higher. And each time he gets out of jail and goes at it again.
Lightner argues that police ought to concentrate their resources on arresting drunk drivers, not just drivers who happen to have been drinking. When serious offenders are arrested they need to be treated seriously, with license revocations and other penalties that increase steadily as their number of offenses increases.
But to arrest drunk drivers you need police, and suddenly declaring 60 percent more Americans as criminally inebriated will stretch resources thinner than ever. "Adoption of 0.08 percent BAC has not to date been accompanied by any comparable new investments in police resources," notes Dr. Ross in a recent issue of Health Drinking magazine, "thus diluting an already inadequate control system. The effect may well be to reduce the chances of any impaired drivers being arrested."
That’s something to think about the next time a weaving automobile shoots past you and you wonder how come there’s never a cop around when you need one.