Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Misplaced Drunk Driving Priorities

Today's Washington Times carried a lucid op-ed piece by John Doyle, executive director of the American Beverage Institute, pointing out how some law enforcement efforts to combat drunk driving are misdirected and therefore ineffective. These are feel-good rather than substantive measures.

Oddly, the article does not appear on the Times' web site, but I tracked it down at the Union Leader in Manchester, New Hampshire, where it appeared May 7. (Both newspapers indicate that the article first appeared in the Providence Journal-Bulletin in Rhode Island.)

Doyle begins with a scenario that reflects reality for a lot of Americans:

WITH SPRING blooming, you decided to treat that “special someone” to a romantic dinner at your favorite restaurant. The evening had started off well enough. A fine meal. The perfect companion. A bottle of wine. The two of you hadn’t driven far from the restaurant when you saw it: a police roadblock.

No problem, you thought. All you did was split a bottle of wine over a long meal. Since you weigh 180 pounds, your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is .03 percent at the most. And the legal arrest threshold is .08 percent — more than twice yours.

Unfortunately for you, police have begun arresting people with a BAC at just a fraction of the legal limit. One Florida man recently ended up in jail for driving with a BAC of .02 percent — the equivalent of about one drink. The grandson of a former Supreme Court justice, who’d had a little wine with dinner, was arrested in Washington with a BAC of .03 percent. And just a few months ago, a Florida man who admitted he drank a few beers hours before spent a night in jail even though his BAC was a flat .00 percent. These are more than just isolated incidents. They are harbingers of a growing trend.
Doyle traces this ludicrous, authoritarian trend to the obvious source:
Politicians looking to make names for themselves are advocating even tougher controls. Lawmakers in three states have gone so far as to call for the installation of breath-testing devices in every single car. If they have their way you won’t make it out of the parking lot until you test yourself; whether or not you drink is irrelevant!
Doyle points out that this trend of targeting the least-dangerous drivers (light and moderate drinkers who are not impaired) has not produced the results that the politicians desire:
In December, Congress ordered an audit of the nation’s drunken-driving programs after noting that we have seen “no discernible progress” over the last six years. That’s the same period during which the noose has tightened around responsible drinkers. In addition to multimillion-dollar “zero-tolerance” advertising campaigns, the legal limit for drinking and driving was lowered from 10 percent to.08 percent BAC.

An honest look at the evidence will lead government auditors to conclude that this approach has failed, and that the real problem has been reduced to what Mothers Against Drunk Driving calls “a hard core of alcoholics.” These people will not be persuaded by PR campaigns, and according to government research they go out of their way to avoid highly publicized roadblocks.

More than ten years ago, I testified before a Virginia State Senate committee on what was then a proposal to reduce the "legal limit" in Virginia from 0.10 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) to 0.08 percent. I was accompanied on that occasion by Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), whose sensible opinions on how best to combat drunk driving had led to her being ostracized by her former comrades-in-arms.

At about that time, I wrote an article that was published in several newspapers. An early version of this article appeared in the Northern Virginia Sun in December 1993. The version reprinted here appeared in The Metro Herald in March 1997:

A Wrong-Headed Change in Drunk Driving Definition
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

Abraham Lincoln was fond of asking his listeners, "If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does he have?" Someone would always answer: "Five." "Not so," Lincoln would admonish them. "Just because you call a tail a leg doesn't mean it's a leg. It's a tail just the same."

So it is with members of Congress who seek to be seen as "tough on drunk driving" by changing the legal definition of drunkenness. By using a carrot- and-stick strategy against states that do not do their bidding, Congress would force state governments to do what the Constitution does not authorize the federal government to do: Write and enforce drunk-driving laws.

Under legislation introduced on March 6 by Representative Nina Lowey (D-N.Y) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), states would have to reduce their legal intoxication limits or lose part of their federal highway construction funds. Lowey and Lautenberg claim at least 500 alcohol-related deaths could be avoided yearly if all 50 states adopted a 0.08 percent limit on the amount of alcohol in a driver's blood. Most states currently have a blood alcohol content (BAC) limit of 0.10 percent.

This misguided approach will have no discernible effect on traffic accidents but instead will waste precious law enforcement resources and give politicians a warm feeling that they have "done something."

Definitions have little to do with actual impairment on the road. According to Dr. William Hotchkiss, former president of the American Medical Association, 83% to 97% of people tested were considered physically impaired at BAC levels of 0.10 to 0.15. In the same study, up to 86% of persons at a BAC of .05-.10 are not physically impaired. This is why a 0.10 BAC has become an accepted standard.

An unexpected opponent of the 0.08 BAC is Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She says: "Half of the drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes have a BAC of 0.17 or greater. Even among young people aged 16 to 24, the great majority of deaths involve drinkers with a BAC of at least 0.15 percent. Lowering the blood alcohol content won't make a difference to these offenders."

Minnesota Judge Dennis Challeen, who over the past 30 years has sentenced hundreds of people for DWI violations, agrees with Lightner. "Most drunk driver fatalities," he notes, "have BAC levels close to 0.20, twice the legal limit. If lawmakers reduce the limit to 0.08, they are simply catching more of the wrong people, the people who are not the problem."

Judge Challeen further argues that stricter laws will be ineffective because those who do not need to be sanctioned -- law-abiding citizens and responsible drinkers -- are most likely to be "self-correcting," while chronic drunks and scofflaws are least likely to respond to harsher penalties.

The fact is, by changing the definition of drunkenness, we enable the police to arrest more people. That may seem tough, but the effect is clogging the courts with people who are not really the problem, creating conditions whereby truly dangerous people are let off without punishment so that we can make room for the minor offender.

The author of Confronting Drunk Driving, Professor H. Laurence Ross, estimates a potential increase of 60 percent of DWI arrests under the new definition with the possibility of no decrease in fatalities. "Adoption of 0.08 percent BAC has not to date been accompanied by any comparable new investments in police resources," Dr. Ross reports, "thus diluting an already inadequate control system. The effect may well be to reduce the chances of any impaired drivers being arrested."

This proposal will raise costs to taxpayers, waste resources and energy, and cause a bureaucratic and legal morass that will not be balanced by better highway safety.

MADD's Candy Lightner makes the point best when she says: "Rather than put our limited resources into laws that fail to address the real problem, we need better enforcement of existing laws and proven policies that have demonstrated a significant impact." She adds: "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 only address the tip of the iceberg will not make our highways safer."

I agree. Our focus should continue to be on education -- the fact that alcohol-related highway deaths are down from nearly 25,000 in 1982 to 23,000 in 1988 to about 17,000 in 1993 is evidence that social disapproval and education are working -- and on tough enforcement of existing laws. Congress should, therefore, turn back any efforts to change the definition of drunkenness nationwide from a BAC of 0.10 to a BAC of 0.08. All that will do is illegitimately extend the federal web into the proper legal domain of state lawmakers.
A decade on, it's hard to believe that the situation we're dealing with -- irrational, feel-good "solutions" that do little to address the core problem -- has changed so little. It's also hard to disagree with John Doyle's conclusion in his newspaper column:
Our collective failure to adequately deal with alcohol abusers who drive drunk should not be used as an excuse to punish moderate consumption of adult beverages. Responsible adults who share a bottle of wine with their dinner deserve privacy, not persecution.

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