It is the weekend and workers are ready to let off some steam. All across America people leave work on Friday evening and head to “happy hour” at bars and restaurants. They have some cocktails, maybe then follow that with wine at dinner. Perhaps they have an after dinner drink with their desert. By the time the night is over many dig keys out of their pockets or purses and then head out to the car to go home. If this doesn’t shake you up and scare you there is something wrong with this picture.
On Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board urged states to adopt a new definition of drunken driving – lowering the blood-alcohol level from 0.08% to 0.05%. This recommendation comes as alcohol-related traffic deaths jumped last year to 10,000. Anyone who has lost a friend or loved one to a drunk driver will tell you that even one death is too many, but obviously something is happening to have the figure increase after six years of declining alcohol-related deaths in traffic accidents.
I would argue that the NTSB’s suggested level is too high. Consider that a woman weighing around 120 pounds could drink a glass or two of wine and drive and still not be considered drunk. A man of significantly more weight (let’s say 200 pounds) could consume three to four glasses of wine and still not meet that level. Unfortunately, impairment begins with the first sip, and alcohol affects everyone differently.
I have had the opportunity to be the “designated” driver, and it is amazing how when one is sipping club soda that the effects of drinking become obvious rather quickly. I can say unequivocally that in these moments I have seen changes in my friends even after a few sips of an intoxicating beverage. There is also the matter of whether or not they are taking medication, eating while drinking, and just their individual level of tolerance. In the end, any amount of alcohol could affect a driver’s ability to react in a situation and cause an accident.
As would be expected, a recommendation of a level of 0.05% has the restaurant and beverage industries crying foul. Sarah Longwell, of the American Beverage Institute, said that the recommendation is ludicrous because the prime drunken drivers are not in “the .08 to .05% range” and that authorities should focus on the “biggest boozers” that are well over the .08% level. Isn’t this just what we need in society – more enablers?
As of now Mothers Against Drunk Driving has not endorsed the NTSB’s new proposal, and all along MADD has emphasized that the government should enhance technology (car ignition breathalyzers for instance) and an increase in sobriety checkpoints all across the country. I have great respect for MADD and believe its members have done great work, but I think they are missing a golden opportunity here. They should not only endorse the lower standard but even go further – I believe the most logical and safest of all blood alcohol levels is 0%. There has to be a realization here that drinking alcohol (in any amount) and driving is unacceptable and absolutely illegal.
Let’s look at some statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services. Alcohol is involved in 37% of all traffic deaths of persons 16 – 20 years of age. Considering the drinking age is 21, that is a mind numbing figure; furthermore, 17% of traffic deaths involving children 0-14 years of age were due to an alcohol impaired driver. These numbers are totally unacceptable and are a salient reason that something more needs to be done as soon as possible.
Zero Tolerance Laws (for those drinking under the age of 21) reduce over 1,000 alcohol-related traffic deaths a year. It doesn’t take a long and expensive study to indicate that expansion of “zero tolerance” for all drivers, not just those under 21, would have a profound effect on the number of alcohol-related deaths. Of course, there will always be those who still grab the keys and think they are super drivers, even while drinking. That is why besides zero tolerance even more steps need to be taken.
A quick glance at Effects of Blood Alcohol Concentration should get people thinking differently. Even with a blood-alcohol level of .02% (below the NTSB’s current proposal) impairment is absolutely evident. By the time someone reaches a .05% level, significant impairment is evident. As we go up to the current nationally accepted level of .08%, it is frightening to realize how deeply affected the driver can be.
I think besides lowering the accepted blood alcohol level to absolute zero, we need cooperation from other industries (most notably beverage and automobile) immediately. I believe that every bar, club, and restaurant should have readily available breathalyzers for customers and that it has to be mandatory for each adult to check his or her level upon exiting the establishment. Upon entering the adults should be required to deposit car keys in a secure location. If the adult is found to be impaired, the keys will not be returned and the management should be required to provide a complimentary car service to bring the adult home.
I also propose that every car available for purchase in the United States be equipped with factory installed ignition systems that require an alcohol breath test each and every time a key is put into the ignition. There should be no exceptions, no wriggle room of any kind. Everyone, absolutely everyone, from the President of the United States to the bus driver in NYC to the soccer mom in Connecticut must engage a system to the detect blood-alcohol level before a vehicle can be started.
I know that this will cost money and time and will be an inconvenience, but these would be extremely effective ways to stop drunk drivers in their tracks. Of course, bar, club, and restaurant owners and automobile companies will want to know who pays for all this, and the answer is that we all do. Each time a young driver’s car is wrapped around a utility pole, his or her family has to plan a funeral, and we drag the drunk driver into court, we pay. We pay for the children lost when their parents get behind the wheel drunk; we pay in so many tangible and intangible ways that preventative measures should seem inconsequential in the big picture.
We worry about all sorts of things that kill people. We raise money to stop cancer and other diseases, to feed the hungry, to help the homeless, and to bring medical help to the poor. We advocate laws for soda cup sizes, cigarette smoking, wearing seatbelts, and gun ownership. All of these things are ways to protect life and our citizenry, but then why are so many people reticent about regulating the ultimate lethal weapon – the driver of a two to three ton vehicle who is impaired?
I must share a personal anecdote that affects the way I feel about this matter. I recall being at a party with friends as a young man. We were all graduating college and had beautiful futures awaiting us. There was a keg of beer and bottles of whiskey, and a number of people were quite drunk. One of my good friends was so drunk that he could barely stand. As the night was winding down, he took his car keys from his pocket and placed them on the table next to his drink. Another friend and I distracted him with conversation, and I managed to snatch his keys and hide them. When he realized he couldn’t find his keys, he was very upset, but I offered to drive him home and said that he could get his second set of keys and we would come back in the morning.
The next day we learned that three young people from that party never made it home. They were all in a horrific car crash and were decapitated. My friend and I went back to get his car the next morning and we saw the remnants of the crash on the highway. He looked at me and said, “I know what you did; thanks, man.”
All these years later I think about that life altering event. My personal policy is don’t drink and drive – ever. I will not have even a sip of alcohol if I am going to drive. I know that drinking is a personal choice for everyone, but safety has to become always the bigger picture. Those three friends of ours who died are gone for over thirty years now and never had a chance to realize their futures. We can only multiply that by the tens of thousands who have died over that time due to alcohol-impaired drivers. The time to stop this madness cannot be put off until tomorrow; it has to be faced now!
The goal has to be to stop drivers from drinking and driving. We need new zero tolerance laws for all drivers. We need ignition systems on all vehicles, and we must require the essential cooperation of entertainment establishments to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. The only acceptable blood alcohol level for all drivers has to be 0%; the time has come to accept nothing less.
photo credits: breath test-dps.mn.gov ; drinker-hayspot.com ; accident-nydailynews.com