Getting Drinkers Off the Road

On average, every day in the United States 29 people die as a result of alcohol-impaired driving, including both drivers and their innocent victims. Drunk driving is a persistent public safety hazard and, at least to a degree, an avoidable one.

Last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, released a report prepared by a committee charged with identifying promising strategies to reduce deaths caused by alcohol-impaired driving in the U.S.

The 489-page report’s equally unwieldy title is “Getting to Zero Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities: A Comprehensive Approach to a Persistent Problem,” and it highlights interventions and actions to reduce alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. Among its recommendations is to significantly lower drunken driving thresholds — the blood-alcohol concentration at which states’ drunk driving laws kick in — from 0.08 to 0.05 percent.

That is a most reasonable suggestion. No one should be operating a motor vehicle with alcohol in his bloodstream, if only because, depending on the weight of the person or whether or not he recently ate, even a very small amount of alcohol can impair judgment and reaction time.

More than 100 countries, in fact, have adopted the lower 0.05 percent threshold. In Europe, the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Distilled Spirits Council, an alcohol industry group, predictably pooh-poohed the recommendation, saying it would “do nothing to deter” repeat offenders and drivers with high blood-alcohol levels, who represent the “vast majority” of alcohol-impaired driving deaths. That may well be true, but lowering the legal blood-alcohol level could deter other drinkers, and that can only be a good thing.

The liquor industry is a powerful one, and not likely to accept any changes aimed at curbing drinking, even by people who will, after drinking, drive. The state of Utah recently lowered its blood-alcohol level, and the American Beverage Institute took out full-page newspaper ads aimed at frightening businesses dependent on tourism and conventions. The ads featured a mugshot under a large headline reading, “Utah: Come for vacation, leave on probation.” More frightening, though, to rational citizens, is the prospect of sharing a highway with someone chemically impaired.

The panel’s other recommendations are less likely to have an impact on the unfortunate statistics. While some research does indicate that greatly increasing alcohol taxes, for instance, can reduce traffic crash deaths, it is hard to imagine that having to pay more for alcoholic beverages will dissuade anyone from celebrating a simchah or, lo aleinu, feeding an addiction. Likewise with reducing the hours and days alcohol can be sold or served by businesses.

Putting greater limits on alcohol marketing, another of the panel’s recommendations, is a sensible idea. Currently, manufacturers are self-regulating in this area, and have created their own standards for the ethical advertising of alcohol. Electronic media advertisements for alcohol, for instance, are supposed to be placed only in media where and when 70 percent of the audience is over the legal drinking age.

But billboards and other publicly posted ads cannot be subject to such a restriction. At least theoretically, by the industry’s professed standards, alcohol advertising’s creative messages are not to be designed to appeal to people under the age of 21. But even younger people are susceptible to the blandishments of ads seemingly aimed at older ones.

Anti-alcohol campaigns, like those that have been created to discourage tobacco use, are another good idea, if only to counter ads that send the message that alcohol consumption is harmless and should be part of daily life.

There are other means of curbing drunk driving that don’t have an impact on the industry, though. Like sobriety checkpoints and ignition interlocks — devices that measure alcohol on drivers’ breaths and into which drivers must breathe to start their vehicle. At present, ignition interlocks are sometimes offered to convicted drunk drivers as an alternative to revocation of their licenses. But the technology, were it to be part of all vehicles, has the potential of preventing most, if not all, drunk driving. An automatic breathalyzer as a standard feature in cars might seem unlikely. But so, once, did airbags.

Whatever methods or technologies society and government may choose to address the impaired driving problem, though, we can and should do our own part. Like making sure we never “make a l’chaim” and then get into the driver’s seat. And that our children see our example.