Drinking is not the worst driving offense
December 4, 2003
With the holiday season comes the annual warnings reminding us to celebrate safely. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others are stepping up their message for everyone to get “MADD all over again.” The campaign complements a deliberate effort to convince Americans that the drunken driving problem is getting worse.
The goal? To justify hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded police roadblocks that target social drinkers – not the hard-core, repeat offenders who are the true problem.
According to MADD, 17,448 people died in “alcohol-related” traffic accidents in 2001. But that term – “alcohol-related” – is more than a little misleading. It includes any accident in which any participant had consumed alcohol. A Los Angeles Times study looked at those fatalities and eliminated cases where the “drunk” was a pedestrian (struck by a sober driver) or where the driver who had consumed alcohol was not at fault. The Times found that the actual number of sober people killed by drunken drivers is closer to 5,000.
Five thousand, of course, is still too many. But in a nation of 280 million people, it is important to put the size of the problem in perspective. Seven times that number die from the flu each winter. In fact, you’re six times more likely to commit suicide than to be victimized by a drunken driver. The advocacy group Citizens Against Wrongful Arrests estimates that the odds of a sober person being killed by a drunk driver are just 0.0000143 in 100. Those are lottery odds: about 1 in 7 million.
At what point should we consider a given risk as too high and enact public policy, costing millions of taxpayer dollars, to diminish that risk? Should we allow national efforts to target millions of responsible adults, when the problem is confined to a small fraction of the population engaged in self-destructive behavior? What liberties are we prepared to sacrifice in the process? And might our laws and limited criminal-justice resources be better spent combating other, more pressing risks?
The problem is that real, number-based risk assessment can’t compete with multimillion-dollar public relations campaigns like MADD’s (the group spent $43 million last year). We simply respond better to pictures, slogans and drama than we do to studies, charts and regression analyses.
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Recently, two Australian studies determined that drivers deprived of a night’s sleep showed the same impaired judgment as drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 percent (that’s “legally drunk” in all 50 states). A recent episode of “Dateline NBC” put sleep-deprived and intoxicated drivers through at test course and came to the same conclusion. But we don’t have “get tough on drowsy driving” campaigns, and DWSD (driving while sleep-deprived) won’t cost you your job or your reputation, though it can be every bit as dangerous as DWI.
A 2002 University of Utah study once again proved that talking on a cell phone impairs drivers more than being legally drunk at 0.10 blood alcohol concentration. Similar findings at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that 2,600 people die as the direct result of cell phone use while driving – more than half of our 5,000-by-drunk-drivers number. Yet the use of cell phones in the driver’s seat is still legal, though it has been debated in several state legislatures.
Now consider a study from the American Automobile Association, which found that drivers are far more distracted by CD players and radios, other passengers, and eating or drinking than by the use of a cell phone. All of these activities present highway safety risks at least comparable to blood-alcohol arrest levers MADD and like-minded advocates are pushing across the country.
Drunk-driving deaths declined sharply during the past 15 years and have stabilized in the last five. Perhaps we’ve done all we can with police and catchy slogans.
If you can get past the hype, the nation should rejoice this holiday season at how far we’ve come rather than buying into the hand-wringing over failed policy.
– Richard Berman is Washington counsel for the American Beverage Licensees, America’s Beer, Wine and Spirit retailers.
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