Caution: Temperance Lives

Posted by | Posted in Wine Politics | Posted on 06-07-2011

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Politicians love banal acronyms.

Earlier this spring, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the “Research of Alcohol Detection Systems for Stopping Alcohol-related Fatalities Everywhere Act of 2011.” Supporters call it the “ROADS SAFE Act,” and it would allocate $60 million over the next five years to “explore the feasibility and the potential benefits of… more widespread deployment of in-vehicle technology to prevent alcohol-impaired driving.”

That’s quite a mouthful, but the bill is actually quite simple: The federal government would provide funding for car manufacturers to install alcohol detection devices as standard equipment on all cars within 5-10 years. These devices — pre-installed ignition interlocks — would prevent cars from starting if an alcohol-sensing device registers above a pre-set level.

Don’t get me wrong — drunk driving is really, really bad. In 2009 alone, nearly 11,000 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. But this bill is dangerous, and it would make criminals out of all of us. How come? It would eventually result in government busybodies preventing us from driving home after drinking a single glass wine at dinner.

I assure you I’m not wearing a tin-foil hat.

For starters, the legal limit is already ratcheting downwards. Once upon a time, the legal drinking limit was 0.10. In 1990s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council, and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen joined together to lobby lawmakers into lowering the legal limit to 0.08. By 2000, Congress threatened to withhold federal highway funds from states that didn’t lower their legal limit – and by 2005, every state fell in line.

Now, there’s a push to lower the limit to 0.05. Indeed, 0.05 is already the legal limit in every Canadian province except Quebec, thanks to a lobbying effort by MADD Canada.

Courtesy of American Beverage Institute

Never mind the fact that the percentage of total traffic fatalities involving alcohol-impaired drivers has remained relatively stagnant since the shift from 0.10 to 0.08. Or that according to government data, the average drunk driver involved in a deadly crash has an ABV of 0.19 — more than twice the legal limit. Modern-day temperance advocates don’t want you to drink, period.

Second, according to the American Beverage Institute, “Five states — New York, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Oklahoma — have already considered legislation to mandate interlocks on all vehicles.” (Italics mine.)

Finally, you can rest assured that any pre-installed ignition interlocks would be set well below the legal limit. Proponents assure us that such devices will only target reckless, repeat offenders – but that’s hogwash. For one thing, the temperance advocates behind this measure want the legal limit far below 0.08. More importantly, the technology will have a margin for error. So if someone with an ABV above 0.08 gets into an accident because his interlock device is calibrated too high, the auto-manufacturer could be liable. Consequently, manufacturers will set their devices well below the legal limit to protect themselves from liability.

I write all this because we can make a difference. In 1974 and 1975, many new cars sold in the United States came with a pre-installed ignition interlock that prevented drivers from starting their cars until their seat belts were fastened. This was a short-lived initiative, as American drivers were outraged.

Once ignition interlocks are pre-installed as standard equipment, though, it’ll be too late. Politicians certainly wouldn’t roll such a policy back, as they wouldn’t want to appear “soft” on drunk driving. And manufacturers certainly wouldn’t take these devices out. After all, these devices will be funded by tax dollars. And once they’re pre-installed on most vehicles, no manufacturer would want the liability of not having them.

So the time to get riled up is now. Americans should be able to enjoy a glass of wine with their dinner or a beer at the ballpark without fear of arrest. Responsible drinking shouldn’t be a crime.

I learned of this issue by following the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade group that’s helping fight the good fight against HR 1161. The group has set up TheNewProbition.com to educate folks on this issue.

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