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The Real Problem With Drunk Driving

By
May 5, 2005


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.

It gets even more ridiculous. Let’s say you didn’t finish your bottle of wine. In most states it is illegal to recork the bottle and take it home. In the states that do allow it, the unfinished bottle often has to be resealed in paraffin, placed in a stapled-shut doggie bag and locked in the trunk.

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!

No reasonable person excuses drunken driving, but it is absurd to equate those who get behind the wheel after abusing alcohol with the 40 million Americans who drink responsibly before driving. Scientific evidence proves that this legal behavior is far safer than driving while talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device. Studies from the University of Utah, The New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere show that drivers using a hands-free cell phone are more “impaired” than drivers at the legal limit of.08 percent BAC.

Drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents have an average BAC of .19 percent, more than twice the legal threshold. To get that drunk, your steak dinner would have to include a whole bottle of wine for yourself, plus at least five cocktails. This kind of alcohol abuse _ not a couple enjoying a bottle of wine over dinner _ is the real source of today’s drunken-driving problem. Not surprisingly, our measures to crack down on those abusers are failing.

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.

Time and again you hear about people arrested for their 10th, 15th or 20th driving while intoxicated. One man was recently arrested for his 34th. Common sense says that our scarce resources should be used to hunt down and arrest these habitual offenders, and that once caught they should be punished severely. MADD founder Candy Lightner put it best when she said, “if we really want to save lives, let’s go after the most dangerous drivers on the road.”

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.

(John Doyle is executive director of the American Beverage Institute, an association of restaurants.)