Drunk Driving Hysteria

Drunk DrivingI am not much of a drinker. But I really hate the modern abstinence movement that is best represented by MADD. And look: I understand! The negative effects of alcohol are big and obvious. I don’t even much think of drunk driving. Alcohol makes a lot of people total assholes. But here’s the thing. Americans are far more responsible drinkers than they’ve ever been. And what has our society done as a result: become more and more hysterical about the evils of the devil’s brew.

Do I really mean that MADD is an abstinence movement? Yes! MADD lobbied to have the legal alcohol level be reduced from 0.12 to 0.08. I’m not necessarily against that, although I think it is madness to say that a blood alcohol content (BAC) alone really tells much about how fit someone is to drive. But the point is that the moment that MADD got the BAC level reduced to 0.08, it immediately started lobbying to have the new number reduced to 0.04. I’m not a big believer in slippery slopes, but I have no doubt that MADD would not be happy with the 0.04 level if they got it. It would soon be 0.02 and then zero tolerance.

What’s more, MADD has been very deceptive in pushing for their policies. A great one is to get a group of non-drinkers together. They then have them drink a glass of wine and ask them, “Would you feel comfortable driving in this state?” The answer is almost always no. And then they tell the people, well, you’re BAC is less than 0.04! I try to have a glass of wine each night and I agree: I’m not fit to drive after I’ve had a glass of wine. That’s because, I’m a lightweight. People who drink more than I do are not incapacitated at that level.

Along these lines, Sarah Kliff reported this afternoon on a new study (pdf) that found—Brace yourself!—designated drivers sometimes have a drink. The results are supposed to be shocking, but I found them rather encouraging. For starters, you need to know that the study was conducted with twenty-somethings in college bars. Yet the study found that 65% of designated drivers had had no alcohol at all. To me, that’s the headline. I never would have thought that this group would be that responsible. That result really cheers me up!

In addition, 82% were below 0.05 BAC—also known as well below the legal limit. And the kicker is that even among the 18% who had a BAC above 0.05, the median was only 0.08. (The average was higher, indicated that some were clearly drunk.) So even among the most irresponsible, there was a level of responsibility. What’s more: I want to know how their friends tested. Is a designated driver BAC of 0.08 optimal? Of course not. But if he (it is usually he) is driving around comrades who test at 0.22, that’s a good thing, is it not?

But the paper’s conclusion is just the opposite of this, “These findings identify the need for consensus across researcher, layperson, and communication campaigns that a DD must be someone who has abstained from drinking entirely.” Really?! That strikes me as an awfully moralistic conclusion for a scientific paper. Although it is typical of the drug treatment community that thinks that anything but perfection is failure. And this has a pernicious effect on society. I always encourage people who are having trouble quitting smoking to try just to reduce their smoking. It really isn’t the case that one cigarette or 40 is the same. But talking to these fools, you get the idea that it is.

Kliff’s headline is typical of the kind of hysteria that the abstinence movement is pushing: “Go Home Designated Drivers; You’re Drunk.” But of course, that is not what the study showed at all. It showed that a very strong majority of designated drivers were not drinking at all. And it showed that 91% of them were at or below the legal limit. Clearly, some of the designated drivers were confused about their jobs. But this isn’t something that deserves hysteria: “Study shows 9% of a collection of people known to be irresponsible are in fact irresponsible.” Alert the press! Oops. They already did.


The data were collected between 10:00 pm and 2:30 am. This is important, because this shows that the results do indicate a worst case scenario. These are the more serious drinkers—again, the people you would think would be more irresponsible. But if I were being completely fair, the headline ought to have been, “Most designated drivers do excellent job; some do not.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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