The Loss of Objectivity

By Gary Biller, NMA President

The fallout from the National Transportation Safety Board’s call for the legal definition of drunk driving to be lowered from the current 0.08 percent of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) across all 50 states to 0.05 is just beginning.

The New York Times requested the NMA to provide a 300-word rebuttal to the proposal for their “Room for Debate” point-counterpoint online forum. We gladly did so, realizing that a balanced discussion of this heated issue is necessary and critical to the future of driving and drivers’ rights in this country.

We assumed the online debate would be reasonably balanced. I’m not sure why; history has shown this topic to be covered more with emotionalism than balance. When the Times published “Too Drunk to Drive” on May 16th, it consisted of four opinions for the lower BAC limit and just one – the NMA’s – against. Two days earlier, the Times Editorial Board published an op-ed strongly in favor of a 0.05 BAC limit. There was no subtlety there whatsoever.

The Times editor for “Room for Debate” came back to us on three separate pre-publication occasions, each time asking for substantiation of any facts and figures we included. Again, we gladly did so, realizing that too many “experts” throw around talking points without feeling the compulsion to be particularly truthful.

One of the other debaters—Jan Withers, president of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD)—was able to claim that “Seventeen states with all-offender ignition interlock laws have reduced D.U.I. fatalities by more than 30 percent . . .” without the need to provide proof of her point. Apparently even the Times won’t mess with MADD.

The objectivity referred to in the title of this blog goes deeper than the typical claims of bias in the mainstream media. A read of the comments posted online by readers of the five “Too Drunk to Drive” op-eds provides a glimpse into why objectivity is losing the war to intransigence. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion—life would be pretty bland otherwise—but the key ingredient of retaining some degree of open-mindedness to help shape one’s beliefs is the concept that is now on life support.

I read alternately in the online comments that the use of statistics in my op-ed ranged anywhere from hogwash to very astute. The same type of diametrically-opposed comments were posted for the other opinions in “Too Drunk to Drive” as well. My sense was that the facts and logic of each op-ed were subordinate to whatever opinion the reader held beforehand.

It is my fervent hope that anyone who has a vested interest in the issue of impaired driving—everyone who drives, rides, bikes, or walks our roadways—takes a deep breath and gives careful thought to the consequences, both intentional and unintentional, of further separating the legal definition from the physiological reality of what constitutes driving while impaired.

There is no arguing that every life lost on our highways is a tragedy. The point we should focus on is where our attention and resources can best be applied to save lives. Considering that the government has noted the average BAC of drivers in a drunk-driving fatality is 0.19 and that 92.5 percent of these drivers had BACs of 0.10 and higher, I wonder why we are so preoccupied with moving closer to a prohibitionist state. The more effective fight for better highway safety is best waged by developing solutions to keep high (0.14 and higher) BAC drivers off of the road.

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