Friday, August 29

It's drinking AND driving

The national drinking age is back in the public spotlight, thanks to the Amethyst Initiative signed by over a hundred college presidents. Naturally, the presidents say they only want to "open up dialog," but, shorn of the academic hedging, their proposal really is to lower the drinking age to something like 18. It's an unusually bold move for these presidents, but they all have to deal with this question on a regular basis.

Reactions have been flooding papers all over the country. The first to strike back was MADD, pointing out the obvious fact, bolstered by scores of studies, that drinking and driving don't mix. What I find interesting in these reports is that the causation is considered in only one direction. So in a San Fransisco Chronicle editorial,

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that since 1975, laws setting the drinking age at 21 have cut traffic fatalities among 18-to-20-year-old drivers by 13 percent, saving an estimated 19,121 lives."

I don't doubt this statistic, but why is entire burden of the 19,121 lives places on the use of alcohol and none of it on the fact that these teenagers were operating vehicles. Suppose a teenager were to get drunk, find his father's unlocked handgun in the closet, and accidentally shoot his friend with it. Surely, the national reaction would be to toughen up gun control laws. But in the case of automobile accidents, why are cars given a pass when they are used by irresponsible people as weapons?

Interestingly enough, Europeans usually react to these tragedies from the opposite direction. According to a Washington Post article,

"The accident bore the familiar details of a drunk-driving tragedy. Six young people, age 16 to 20, had been out late at a club. On the long ride toward home early on a Saturday morning, their small car smashed into a bridge pillar, killing everyone. Witnesses said the driver, 20, appeared drunk as he left the club.

The Nov. 20 accident in Sausheim, a town in eastern France, shocked people across the country. But in a society in which the legal drinking age is 16, the resulting public debate focused not on how to keep alcohol from young people, but on how to enforce highway rules more strictly and crack down on errant drivers. News coverage took particular note that the driver had no license or insurance."

On the other side of the Atlantic they take the drinking as a given and work to curtail the driving. We take the driving as a given and work to curtail the drinking. It seems there should be a way to approach this multifaceted problem from both angles. Perhaps groups like MADD could team up with architects and planners who are working to make cities more accessible without automobiles. I, for one, would much rather have a late night encounter with a drunken college student on bicycle than in a Buick.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I wrote an article on how zoning actually encourages drunk driving. Thought you might find it interesting.