Last year’s battle in Washington over a proposed national standard that would have forced states to lower the legal blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) allowed in drivers to 0.08 percent milligrams per decaliter of blood or lose as much as 10 percent of their federal highway safety funds was won by the beverage alcohol and restaurant industries. Fighting what they consider simply the latest in unfounded attacks by anti-alcohol forces, the Alcohol Beverage Institute lead the fight to keep the federal mandate from passing the full Congress.
But the bill tying federal highway funds to the passage of .08 laws won handily in the Senate before being derailed in the House of Representatives, surely a cautionary sign that, despite hefty scientific dispute over the provable beneficial effects of lowering allowable BAC levels, the emotions that drive Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other forces are sure to return the fight to the legislative battlefield.
MADD lead the 1998 fight to push .08 BAC laws onto the national level. Arguing that .08 laws will save 600 lives a year, MADD president Karolyn Nunnallee has focused on the federal BAC initiative, despite a recent report that suggests none of the often-cited studies offered by MADD are conclusive. Today, MADD is certain to assert that .08 BAC laws can save lives “as part of a comprehensive approach.” when the laws are tied with license revocations, public awareness programs and other strong enforcement.
Washington will likely revisit the issue in 2001 or 2002, when a so-called mid-term correction of the highway law will likely be considered. Meanwhile, battles still rage at the state level, where, under the three-tier system of alcohol distribution, the ultimate responsibility to set alcohol and highway standards lies.
As of today, 17 states have laws enforcing .08 BAC as the legal limit above which drivers risk arrest. But other states keep pushing, and in some states, notably Virginia, anti-alcohol forces continue to push for lower measures, although their most recent effort to enact a .06 law was turned back.
Currently, 17 states are at .08 BAC: Utah, Oregon, Maine, California, Vermont, Kansas, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia, Hawaii, Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Washington, District of Columbia and, as of May this year, Texas.
But of the ten states with the lowest alcohol-related fatality levels in 1996, only Utah (#1) and New Hampshire (#8) had .08 laws in place; in Ohio (#2), Maryland (#3), Nebraska (#4), New York, (#4) Idaho (#6), Indiana (#7), New Jersey (#8) and Arkansas (#10), .10 BAC laws were in effect (In 1997, Idaho enacted a .08 law.) New Mexico, which has the highest alcohol related traffic death rate, has had an .08 law in place since 1993.
ABI’s manager of state relations Kristin Eastlick said most attempts to initiate .08 BAC fail. In 1997, she said, 21 states considered .08 BAC laws, but only 2 passed. In 1998, 23 considered changing the laws, but only 1 state did. The same was true for 1999.
But state BAC laws aren’t the only fields of fire for the industry. A recent effort by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) pushed for requiring the National Drug Control Policy, home of the so-called Drug Czar, to include anti-alcohol advertising in the government’s on-going anti-drug campaign. Such industry groups as the National Licensed Beverage Association, the National Beer Wholesalers Association and others worked with allies on Capitol Hill to kill the amendment, but each year, the number of anti-alcohol federal bills increase.
DRIVING WITHOUT A BASIS
The basis for the .08 BAC drive? As a recent General Accounting Office report put it, in 1997, someone in the United States died in an alcohol-related vehicle crash every 32 minutes.
But most fatalities occur well above .08. According to 15 years of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, the percentage of fatalities involving .08 drivers is virtually the same as those with drivers at .03, or even .01. By far (62.4%), the most alcohol related traffic fatalities occur when drivers are found to have a BAC of .14 or above. Almost 78% occur when drivers are at .10 or above.
And while proponents have been claiming that lowering the acceptable BAC would save at least 600 lives a year (about as many as occur in 13 days), the recent GAO study, a result of the 1998 transportation act that had at one point mandated .08 BAC enactment, said even that wasn’t provable. It must have come as a blow to .08 BAC backers, although they are loathe to admit it.
Not the ABI. Their director of public relations John Doyle heralds the GAO’s conclusions as “ending the scientific debate over .08.”
The debate is far from over, but opponents of .08 certainly can wield a much stronger and government sanctioned weapon now. While agreeing with most proponents that .08 BAC laws, when enacted in conjunction with other drunk driving laws, sustained public education and information efforts and strong enforcement, can be effective, the GAO report says that, so far, “the evidence does not conclusively establish that .08 BAC laws by themselves result in reductions in the number and severity of crashes involving alcohol. Until recently, limited published evidence existed on the effectiveness of .08 BAC laws, and NHTSA’s position—that this evidence was conclusive–was overstated.”
It was a slap at NHTSA for promoting questionable reports as conclusive, but, as Doyle says, NHTSA and MADD are equally rabid on .08 BAC. In fact, the organizations reacted similarly in spirit and identically in at least the first sentence of their official response to the GAO report, bolstering suspicions in the beverage alcohol industry that it has few government friends in this fight.
It’s doubtful that the GAO’s conclusions will in fact settle the argument that lower BAC levels are alone not enough to reduce drunk driving fatalities, and MADD still somehow manages to insist that lower BAC laws would reduce fatalities by nearly 600 annually, a number they get from an ally whose study the GAO found lacking in substantial evidence.
The report goes on to challenge any specific claims for saving any number of lives. “It is difficult to accurately predict how many lives would be saved if all states passed .08 BAC laws….a strong causal link between .08 BAC laws by themselves and reductions in traffic fatalities is absent…” A copy of the report can be found on the ABI website (www.abionline.org), as can other information about blood alcohol and its measurement.
Clearly drunk driving is in no one’s interest, but opinions about who and what are causing accidents differ. Alcohol-related deaths of all sorts have been shrinking in general but drunk driving statistics are inching up even in states where .08 has been in force.
But MADD sticks to its position that even the smallest number of fatalities stopped are worth while, even if it criminalizes a large segment of the population currently considered legal operators and even though alcohol deaths have already declined from more than 25,000 in 1982 to about 17,000 in 1986, dropping from about three-fifths to about two-fifths of all traffic fatalities.
ABI also argues that .08 is unpersuasive in other areas. Only two of the ten states with the lowest alcohol related traffic fatalities have adopted a .08 limit.. The ABI argues, as it has constantly, that the real problem is the chronic alcohol abuser and repeat offender.
WHAT CAN RETAILERS DO?
While few retailers are called upon to testify at the federal state or local level, perhaps more should consider stepping forward.
ABI director of public affairs John Doyle says being well-informed and prepared to speak out in public, to the press or at hearings, may be the best defense an individual in the beverage alcohol industry can have. Once individuals and politicians understand that the issues in cases like .08 BAC laws are more complicated than whether or not you are in favor of solutions that promise to reduce traffic fatalities, businesses selling alcohol may not be so stigmatized by the fight.
They also should keep in touch with organizations like ABI, NLBA and NABR about the on-going federal and state issues. Websites web sites are available (Try Internet pages www.bacdebate.com, www.abionline.org and www.nlba.org to start, or call ABI at 800-843-8877 and the NLBA at 800-441-9894.)
Another way to make certain that your community knows you as a responsible seller of beverage alcohol is to embrace training programs that promote responsible service. Perhaps the best known is the Training for Intervention Procedures, or TIPS, created and developed by Dr. Morris Chafetz, founding director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Created to prevent alcohol misuse, drunk driving and underage drinking by enhancing fundamental people skills of servers and consumers, TIPS incorporates a common sense approach to serving alcohol responsibly in every setting.
Now in its 18th year, TIPS provider Health Communications, which markets TIPS programs suitable for on-premise, off-premise, casinos, concessions and four other service areas, claims no TIPS-trained server has ever been successfully sued in an alcohol-related liability lawsuit, and says more than 900,000 individuals will have received the training by the end of next March.
For more info on TIPS, call 1 800 GET-TIPS.