NMA E-Newsletter #296: Politicizing the BAC Debate Thwarts Finding Real Solutions

By a Massachusetts NMA Member

I’ve been impressed with NMA’s diligence for years now, but I think you might need to take a closer look at slide three of the presentation at http://www.alcoholstats.com/uploads/DrunkDrivingStatistics.pdf before jumping into the politicized waters surrounding DUI and the BAC threshold.

If I’m reading the chart correctly, in 2010 the total number of fatal crashes was 37,023. Of these, 20,838 did not indicate any alcohol consumption by any participant, This means that about 44 percent of the fatal crashes involved alcohol. As I’m sure you realize, 44 percent is the only number that your opponents will use to promote lowering the DUI threshold to .05 percent as a “safety” issue, even when they know perfectly well that the actual resultant change will be essentially nil (i.e., less than 5 percent, which qualifies as statistical noise). At this point the emotionally charged “… if even one child (or life) could be saved …” argument in favor of dramatically tighter BAC restrictions kicks in, precisely as it has with school bus cameras.

It’s interesting that in Russia the BAC threshold for “drunk” driving is .02 percent, which either may be supporting claims that Russia has more drunk drivers than any other nation or an observation that there are simply more people being arrested for drunken driving in Russia than anywhere else—both claims due primarily to a very low BAC threshold. In either case, the Russian government controls both enforcement and the reported stats. The European trend seems to be toward .05 percent, which does not appear to be supported by any stats but clearly has political “curb appeal” for voters who have no real control over their multiple layers of government.

The chart also has a couple of odd-looking features which, if accurate reflections of the truth, deserve closer examination. For example, the fatality rate (1,718) for .01-.07 BAC is about 2.45 times that for BAC .08-.09 (702). Because it is consistent for every year since 1982, we might conclude that a BAC of .08-.09 is more than twice as safe as a BAC of .01-.07, which is contrary to the claim that a higher BAC is always worse. Is it or not?

And the rate for BAC .15-.19 is about 170 percent the rate for BAC .20 and up. My personal guess on this point is that there are very few people who can actually find their car, get behind the wheel, and fit the key into the ignition switch with a BAC over .20. I suspect most people don’t get past finding the car, but if they do, they often pass out at the wheel. In any event, the chart suggests that a BAC of .10 or higher is generally bad news, but lower BAC percentages (.01-.10) are possibly in the realm of statistical “noise” if we consider only the potential for fatalities.

Now, one of the long-standing problems with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics is that they consider only fatalities. This, for example, prompted the Massachusetts government to proudly declare (as front-page news in The Boston Globe several years ago) that Massachusetts is actually, despite insane insurance premiums and vast numbers of crashes, the safest state in the nation for drivers.

This absurd claim was based on the number of NHTSA-reported fatalities on U.S. Highway 3 in Boston (aka the infamous Southeast Expressway) occurring on Sunday mornings and supported by the heartening observation that, unlike in Wyoming, crashes in or near Boston usually get a rapid response, which means that driving in or near Boston (counting only Sunday mornings on one 20-mile stretch of highway)—and therefore Massachusetts as a whole (with the second-highest population density in the nation and roughly 5/6 of the state’s population within 35 miles of Boston)—is “safer” than driving in Wyoming (lowest population density in the nation) even though it is manifestly more dangerous than in the overwhelming majority of states.

Basically, the problem lurking in the NHTSA stats is that the real story about BAC can’t be accurately told because the focus is solely on the worst possible outcome. This invites politicizing a topic that deserves thoughtful examination and pragmatic solutions. I don’t see much evidence of either.

NMA President Gary Biller responds:

Thank you for a very thoughtful analysis of DUI statistics and how they are used to ostracize anyone who dares advocate for reasonable laws and enforcement practices. It is so politically incorrect to challenge the trend toward criminalizing alcohol use again—hey, prohibition worked so well the first time around — that few if any of our state and national legislators have the courage to question the moral and economic consequences of a continued lowering of the legal (but not physiological) limit of impaired driving.

I derive some hope from the reaction to my op-ed for the November 2013 issue of  The Costco Connection. That magazine has a subscriber base of five million so it provided plenty of exposure to the informed debate between me and a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, an organization that prompted the discussion by calling for a lowering of the DUI limit from 0.08 BAC—observed by all states—to 0.05. The following month, The Costco Connection published the results of an associated reader poll that asked, “Should the DUI limit be lowered?” Seventy-two percent said no, while 28 percent wanted tighter regulations. Now if we can get those 72 percent to speak up when it counts!

One other observation about the NHTSA statistics that you dissected very effectively: The fatalities are based on “highest driver BAC in the crash.” That doesn’t mean that the driver with the BAC (or alcohol for that matter) caused the accident. DUI information and statistics are routinely presented in such a way that, as you so aptly stated, it leads to “politicizing a topic that deserves thoughtful examination and pragmatic solutions.”

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