Monday, March 6, 2000

Mothers Against Drunk Driving may soon have to change its name to Mothers Against Any Drinking Whatever if, that is, it wants to avoid false advertising. The organization’s ongoing push to compel states to adopt ever-lower standards for being legally “drunk” is becoming a prohibitionist jihad driven by hysteria, not medical reality.
In Maryland, MADD is exerting pressure on state lawmakers to lower the legal blood-alcohol level (BAC) at which a person may be charged with “drunk driving” from the current 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. The effort has already succeeded in Virginia, which dropped its standard for legal intoxication to 0.08 after a similar lobbying campaign by MADD.
The problem is neither MADD nor anyone else can objectively demonstrate why the threshold ought to be lowered. As with the much-hated “double nickel” speed limit of 55-mph, the 0.08 BAC standard is basically just an arbitrary number picked out of a hat.
“I was there when the reading was 0.15 and the doctors said, ‘look, when you’re at 0.13, you’re intoxicated.’ Then a few years went by and the doctors said, ‘When you’re 0.10, you’re intoxicated.’ But now, I haven’t heard anyone come forward to say that, medically, at 0.08, you are intoxicated,” said Maryland Democratic State Rep. Joseph F. Vallario Jr.
MADD counters that Mr. Vallario who is also a criminal defense lawyer has a vested interest in keeping the BAC level higher to protect his clients. But the other side of it is that MADD has never presented any scientific evidence that lowering the level from 0.10 to 0.08 will reduce highway fatalities or that a person is significantly impaired at the 0.08 level. A 0.08 BAC can be reached after a person of average size and weight (about 150 pounds) consumes two beers, or the equivalent, within an hour.
“MADD’s No. 1 priority is to lower the arrest threshold for [driving while intoxicated] to .08 even though this level makes it illegal for a 120-lb. woman to drive after consuming just two glasses of wine over the course of 2 hours,” says Rick Berman of the Alcohol Beverage Institute, the lobbying arm of the liquor industry.
Few reasonable people would characterize a person who has consumed two beers over an hour as “drunk.” Yet the laws are being rapidly changed all across the country to the lower standard of 0.08. Seventeen states (as well as the District of Columbia) have written the 0.08 standard into law. The reason for the change, alas, has much more to do with political correctness who wants to take issue with “Mothers” who are against “Drunk Driving”? and federal pressure (the feds dangle millions in front of states that adopt 0.08) than with identifying impaired motorists.
In fact, studies of the matter have found that most alcohol-related crashes involve motorists with BAC levels of 0.12 or higher. These “super drunk” motorists are the ones doing the damage yet the social drinker is taking most of the flack. The majority of drivers arrested for “driving under the influence” are caught in sobriety checkpoints; in other words, they were not driving erratically or giving any evidence of impairment. They simply ran afoul of the breathalyzer and a politically correct, arbitrarily chosen BAC threshold.
Here are some interesting facts:
* In 1996, more than 62 percent of all traffic fatalities considered to be “alcohol-related” were the work of drivers with BAC levels above .14 almost twice the .08 level.
* According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatality rates don’t go up appreciably until you get above .10 BAC the previous legal threshold for “drunk driving” in most states.
* A study done by the Harvard Injury Control Center found that 67 percent of those drivers who were killed in automobile accidents after drinking had BAC levels of .15 or higher.
Yet MADD continues to make the unsupported claim that “at .08 BAC, a driver is 16 times more likely to be involved in a crash.” MADD President Karolyn Nunnallee has argued that “many people are dangerously impaired at even .05 BAC” which is about where you’d be after a little more than one beer on an empty stomach.
Remember that not so long ago, the BAC level in most states was 0.12 exactly the threshold at which most of the alcohol-related accidents occur. Then politics began to supplant rationale lawmaking and what began as a legitimate effort to address the danger of problem drinkers has become a self-perpetuating crusade against drinking, period. Even MADD’s founder, Candy Lightner, thinks the movement has gone off the reservation. She describes it as “overzealous” and has disassociated herself from it. The drunk driver who killed her daughter had a BAC level of 0.20, incidentally.
“Police ought to be concentrating their resources on arresting drunk drivers not those drivers who happen to have been drinking. I worry that the movement I helped create has lost direction,” Mrs. Lightner has said.
It is to be hoped that Maryland will not bow to the demagoguery of MADD and that it will set BAC levels in accordance with medical reality, not anti-drinking hysteria.

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