Drinking and Driving in D.C.

Chuck Ferrar

This holiday season, as you raise a glass with friends and loved ones, there is one special event worth toasting — the D.C. Council's vote to support responsible social drinkers.

This year has proved to be an exception to the normally true phrase, "Nothing sensible comes out of Washington." The council, as well as citizens and state and federal lawmakers, have begun to realize that persecuting social drinkers does little to fight drunk driving.

First, the outraged response to The Washington Post expose of the city's policy of routinely arresting, handcuffing and jailing adults with blood-alcohol contents (BAC) well below the established 0.08 percent BAC arrest threshold ought to be commended. The outpouring of ire spurred emergency legislation to abolish Washington's "zero tolerance" policy by raising the alcohol-impairment presumption level to be in line with Maryland and Virginia's standards. (The District's per se drunk driving arrest threshold is 0.08 percent BAC, the nationwide standard.) This change allows adults to once more legally and responsibly drink and drive in D.C. without compromising the arrest of drunk drivers. In fact, it could be argued that this shift increased the efficacy of law enforcement. They are now focusing on dangerous drivers, rather than harassing adults who had a glass of wine with dinner.

The council vote is supported by current bus ads stating, "Know your limits and the law. Drink and Drive Responsibly." From the city that spawned the prohibitionist "You Drink & Drive. You Lose," slogan, the council's endorsement of a law-based message that reflects reality is refreshing.

These changes in attitude seem to be marking the return of the pendulum from a radical "zero tolerance" stance. The "Drink and Drive Responsibly" message acknowledges the distinction between the 40 million Americans who responsibly consume adult beverages and the product abusers who routinely reach high BACs and then dangerously take to the highways.

This distinction has long been supported by government data, which shows that the average blood-alcohol level of a drunk driver in a fatal crash is more than twice the legal limit. To reach that level, a 200-pound man would have to drink more than 10 beers in an hour — hardly social drinking.

Federal lawmakers should also be congratulated for their work on the reauthorization of the highway bill earlier this year, where they refused to compromise states' ability to fight drunk driving by imposing numerous questionable mandates. One of the proposed requirements would have had the perverse effect of letting repeat offenders back on the roads sooner. Instead, Capitol Hill acknowledged that they cannot foresee every state's situation. They preserved states' freedom to pursue the most effective tactics.

Speaking of effective anti-drunk driving tactics, cheers to Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. These states do not conduct sobriety roadblocks and instead invest solely in roving patrols. In a victory for advocates of civil liberties, these 11 states made up more than 95 percent of the national reduction in alcohol-related fatalities between 2003 and 2004, accounting for 394 of the 411 lives saved. The other 39 states (plus the District) use sobriety roadblocks. They randomly stop drivers, regardless of probable cause, and demand whether the driver has had anything to drink. They contributed a meager 17 lives saved.

As these developments make clear, laws that criminalize responsible consumption and radical one-size-fits-all policies do little to address drunk driving. States need the freedom to tailor their strategies to fit their specialized challenges. When common sense is returned to the debate, considerable progress can be made by focusing on the problem — drunk drivers — instead of diluting our resources by needlessly harassing social drinkers.

As you celebrate in Washington this holiday season, enjoy the safe (and once more legal) activity of drinking and driving responsibly.


Originally published in The Washington Times (December 28, 2005). Reprinted with permission of the author

Filed Under: Drinking and Driving