December 19, 2002
Drinking and driving

According to the Chron, "the rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths in Texas has declined 63 percent in the last 20 years", from 2.24 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled to 0.83. That's good news, right? Not if you're MADD:

"The bad news, of course, is that Texas is still number one in the total body count," said Bill Lewis, public policy liaison for the Texas office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, someone has to be. Texas is a big state with a lot of people and not a lot of mass transportation, after all.

In 2001, Texas lost an estimated 1,798 people in alcohol-related crashes, compared with an estimated 2,801 in 1982.

Let's put some of these numbers in context. In 2001, Texas had 21,325,018 people. In 1982, Texas had 15,332,000 people. Thus, the rate of alcohol-related fatalities to population fell from 18.27 per 100,000 to 8.43 per 100,000. The mortality rates overall were 759.2 per 100,000 in 1980 and 736.1 in 2000. That means that alcohol-related traffic fatalities dropped from 2.4% of all deaths to 1.1% of all deaths.

So, to recap, in the Great State Of Texas in 2001, fewer than one person out of 10,000 was killed in an alcohol-related traffic accident. Over the period of time in which Texas' population grew by 40%, the annual number of such deaths dropped by 40%. How is it that Bill Lewis can see any bad news at all?

It gets better. "Alcohol-related traffic fatalities" does not mean "people killed by drunk drivers". As others have noted, it's any fatal accident in which someone is killed and one of the parties, not necessarily the one who caused the accident, had had something to drink. The real "drunk driver" toll is undoubtedly a fair bit smaller.

Yet the story has a completely negative tone about it, as if we were back in the bad old days when drunk driving was winked at:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Wednesday released statistics that, for the first time, document the extent of alcohol-related fatalities for every state. Only eight states and the District of Columbia had more alcohol-related fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel in 2001 than Texas.

Lewis said public attitudes about drinking and driving have changed in the past two decades. He credits the Texas Legislature with passing strong laws such as reducing the blood-alcohol level required to prove legal intoxication.

But in other areas Texas has lagged behind California and other states, said Lewis. For example, it was only in the last legislative session that Texas eliminated a requirement that a police officer must see someone sipping a beer in their vehicle before that driver could be arrested for violating a ban on open containers.

MADD recently graded Texas' efforts to stop drunken driving a C-minus. California received a B-plus.

The problem here is that we're rapidly approaching the point of severely diminished returns. If we wanted to, we could get alcohol-related traffic fatalities down close to zero, but the price we'd have to pay - regular "sobriety checkpoints", more and more people arrested for smaller and smaller infractions - would far exceed the benefit.

I find myself in agreement with the National Motorists' Association's position on drunk driving (found via TalkLeft). It's time we put a sense of proportion back into this debate.

Oh, and one last thing: Candy Lightner, the woman who founded MADD after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver who then got a slap on the wrist from the court, is no longer involved in MADD. She believes the organization "has lost its focus".

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 19, 2002 to Legal matters | TrackBack

Hi. I'm a stundent In texas san antonio, and I been reading about drinking and rving facts, and well I read a paragragh saying " The only safe amount of alcohol when you are mixing driving and drinking is zero -- double zeros. No alcohol." so I was thinking, do this people never drink ever? I mean what about the people that go for a ball game and have a beer? or a dinner party and have some wine?, so should we all be arrested for driving after consuming a beer? thanks Luis.

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