- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

For years, groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have fought to establish ever lower legal standards defining "impaired" or "drunken" driving. Over the past 20 years, largely as a result of pressure exerted by MADD, many states have dropped their legal maximum Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) standards from .10 or .12 to .08 BAC. MADD has claimed that this reduction in allowable BAC levels, combined with more severe enforcement, such as the expanded use of so-called sobriety checkpoints, would result in less drunken driving and thus less alcohol-related carnage on U.S. roads. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released statistics that show alcohol-related fatalities have increased for the first time in decades.
Last year, fatalities classified as "alcohol-related" by NHTSA increased to 40 percent, up from 38 percent in 1999. The exact figures were 16,653 fatalities in 2000 and 15,976 in 1999. According to NHTSA, this was the first increase in alcohol-related fatalities since1995.
The interesting coincidence here if it is a coincidence is that the uptick in alcohol-related fatalities coincides with the widespread passage of the lower .08 BAC thresholds favored by MADD in many states around the country.
According to the National Motorists Association (NMA), a Libertarian-oriented advocacy group, the lower BAC thresholds do not necessarily correlate with less drunken driving or lower fatality rates. Rather, they "define drunkenness down," arbitrarily categorizing drivers who present no real threat to themselves or others and focus limited law-enforcement resources on these drivers, instead of the truly dangerous drunk drivers with BAC levels well above .10, who comprise the majority of people actually involved in accidents classified as "alcohol-related."
"It is time to focus on the real problem, those who are truly impaired on our roads," NWA spokesman Eric Skrum said. These are the drivers with BAC levels above .10 indeed, those with BAC levels typically in the .12 to .17 range. (In 1996, more than 62 percent of all traffic fatalities considered to be "alcohol related" involved drivers with measured BAC levels above .14, or almost twice the .08 standard pushed by MADD.) "Our nation has wasted resources that should have been utilized in apprehending and punishing dangerous drivers," said Mr. Skrum. "Instead the nation has followed the prohibitionist movement propagated by MADD and punished drivers who were not a danger to themselves or others."
Indeed, MADD has openly advocated that BAC levels be lowered even below the currently voguish .08 level established in many states perhaps to as low as .06, or even .04 BAC. Karolyn Nunnallee of MADD has argued publicly, for example, that many people are "dangerously impaired" at just .05 BAC about a beer and a half, over the course of an hour.
But is there evidence to suggest, let alone prove, that people are appreciably impaired at BAC levels of .06, .04 or even .08, as MADD insists? The answer is no. Lawful BAC levels are increasingly determined by politics, not good science. If this were not true, BAC levels would correspond to the levels clearly shown by years of careful record keeping to be associated with accidents and fatalities. Instead, the net has been cast ever wider so wide that sobriety checkpoints are needed to identify all the supposed drunks.
No one condones drunk driving. Still, that isn't the point. The question is, what exactly constitutes "drunk" driving? Should BAC levels be established based upon medical and statistical evidence of impairment or pulled arbitrarily from a hat held by such special-interest groups as MADD, which have a clear stake in perpetuating fear and hysteria about "drunk driving"?
"We need to target the real causes of traffic accidents, rather than wasting our resources on actions that harass and punish safe drivers and don't reduce fatalities," said Mr. Skrum. That certainly seems reasonable, and the evidence seems to support NMA's position. But it's an open question whether being reasonable counts for much in today's politically correct public-policy arena.

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