Photo from Missouri State Highway Patrol
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Alcohol, in the form of distilled spirits, has been around almost as long as organized human culture. It has been used as a celebrant, a relaxant, the lubricant of human interaction. IT has also been used, and abused, as a way to push aside sorrows, anxiety, and depression. Used in moderation, alcoholic beverages are accepted and even encouraged. But their abuse has taken many down the dark tunnel of alcoholism, a path marked by anger, violence, and even death.
One of the places where the dangers of booze have been made manifest is on our streets and highways.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that in 2009, an estimated 30.2 million people reported driving under the influence of alcohol at least once in that year. Some 900,000 are arrested annually for DUI/DWI, a third of those are repeat offenders. On average, around 12,000 people in this country die in alcohol-related accidents each year.
There is good news in the trends. Since all states adopted a universal drinking age of 21 in 1981, alcohol-related traffic fatalities have fallen almost 50 percent. In the 1970’s, half of all traffic deaths were attributable to alcohol. Today, that figure is about one-third.
But that kind of celebration carries a heavy dose of rationalization. If that figure represented only the intoxicated themselves, there might be found a bit of justice. However, most of the people who are injured, and who die in alcohol-related accidents are innocents, those who just happened to be on the same road at the same time as the drunk.
In the United States, the legal limit is 0.08% blood alcohol content (BAC). In some states, drivers under the age of 21 can be charged if there is any detectable alcohol at all. In Germany, for example, where the legal drinking age is 16, standards are much stricter. The allowable BAC levels start at zero for beginning drivers, with less than 2 years' experience, and drivers under the age of 21. The same zero-tolerance standard applies to drivers performing the commercial transportation of passengers. For all drivers, the legal limit is 0.03% in conjunction with any other traffic offense or accident, and 0.05% without evidence of alcoholic impact. A BAC level of 0.11% results in the suspension of the person’s driver’s license for about one year. A BAC level of 0.16% means that the driver will require a successful Medical Psychological Assessment before the license can be reinstated. These stringent rules, and their unbending enforcement, keeps alcohol-related deaths to around 5% of the total each year.
I think there is something we can learn from this.