One of our Connecticut activists, Sheldon Wishnick, spoke to the members of the Connecticut Transportation Committee against lowering the BAC level from .10% to .08%. The committee asked many questions. The following are the answers to those questions and Sheldon’s speech.
Why do you think data is collected in the form of alcohol-related, rather than alcohol caused?
Two readily apparent reasons: First, it is physically easy and relatively practical to determine the presence of alcohol, it is something that is measurable and therefore also lends itself to further interpretation and a means to consider one of many factors that may have been a factor in causing a given accident. But, it’s likely relative affect on the cause of the accident rises or declines based on the quantity present. At .3 it’s pretty likely that alcohol was a significant contributing factor. At .03 the opposite is true.
The second reason is political. “Alcohol related” statistics paint a picture of epidemic proportions that demand government action (and money) and a mobilization of citizen action. It justifies bigger budgets, more authority for enforcement agencies, and rationalizes a whole industry designed to feed off the “Drunk Driving epidemic.” Multi-million dollar industries, organizations and bureaucracies are dependent on maintaining the aura of a drunk driving epidemic. This illusion would be impossible to maintain if the true magnitude of drunk driving caused accidents and fatalities were actually itemized and categorized into meaningful segments.
Even though there is less of an impact going to 08, doesn’t the table show that some additional lives would be saved?
No it doesn’t show that. It shows that this tiny percentage of drivers was involved in a fatal accident. There is every reason to believe that the accident would have occurred regardless of the presence of alcohol in the driver. States that have .08 show this very phenomenon taking place. The number of alcohol related fatalities in the low BAC categories decrease and there is a commensurate increase in 0.0 BAC fatalities. Alcohol was not a meaningful factor in the .08 accidents.
Are you saying that you believe ability to drive a car is not affected if you are at .08 or .09 BAC?
We are saying it is not affected to the degree that additional accidents are being caused. People may be exercising compensating behavior and certain individuals may be less prone to agitation and aggressive driving behavior, given alcohol’s affect as a depressant. The bottom line is that these drivers are not over-represented in the accident population.
What should we say to all these people from MADD who have lost loved ones due to drunk drivers?
You seem to be coming out on the side of the people causing the accidents. We certainly sympathize, and some of us empathize with the families who have lost love ones. But, this is not a public policy issue that should be driven by personal emotion or revenge. A look at most of these accidents would show that many existing laws were violated at the time of the crash. In the vast majority of cases the victim was also the impaired driver, or an impaired passenger with an impaired driver. We also support the contention that a significant proportion of the “alcohol related fatalities” are suicides. This accounts for much of the disparity between alcohol caused accidents, about 7 % of all accidents, and drunk driver caused fatalities, probably somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of all fatal accidents.
How would varying the penalties help? If someone is driving under the influence, shouldn’t that be enough to define the penalty?
In all other areas of civil or criminal law punishment is balanced against the severity of the crime. The penalty for stealing a tube of toothpaste is less than that of stealing a car. Granted, existing DWI laws seem to ignore this constant of American law where a person who has consumed 3 or 4 beers can be jailed, fined several thousands of dollars, lose his drivers license, lose his car, suffer huge insurance surcharges and possibly even lose his job. All this and no one was injured, suffered loss of property or was even inconvenienced. Doesn’t this seem out of balance? We accept the premise that if harm is done the guilty party should be punished and or required to compensate the victim, but because they caused the harm, not because they had a drink that may not have had any bearing on causing the accident.
Conversely, if a driver has drank to great excess and reached a point where driving a vehicle would be a reckless and dangerous act the punishment should be increased to reflect the seriousness of this crime. It is difficult to understand why DWI should be treated differently than other violations of the law?
Why shouldn’t we support these bills when it is clear that they have broad public support?
Because the public has been misled about the magnitude, the cause, and the solutions to DWI problems. Because the public does not understand how these onerous provisions can seriously harm responsible citizens who are not, by any reasonable understanding, “drunk drivers.” Because the proponents of these capricious proposals will be back next year and the year after that with new and yet more harsh proposals to further their own agendas and justify their existence. Because as “elected representatives” there are times when you vote against public opinion because you know the public has been mislead or does not understand the consequences of passing a bad law.
This is a bad law. It will severely punish people who are not harming society; it will not affect the problem it is supposedly designed to correct. It will hurt small businesses and the hospitality industry and intimidate a responsible population that does not deserve intimidation. It diminishes due process protections and loosens the professional and training standards for law enforcement officers.
Your constituents would not support this law if they realized how they have been deceived in terms of the magnitude of the DWI “problem” and how these kinds of proposals can harm individuals who are a danger to no one, including themselves.
This is a transcript of Sheldon’s speech in front of the Connecticut Transportation Committee.
Senator Cioto, Representative Cocco and members of the Transportation Committee. I am Sheldon Wishnick and a resident of Newington and the volunteer state chapter coordinator with the National Motorists Association. I am here to help promote safety on the highways and to address the carnage caused by drunk drivers. I am also here to speak in opposition to the lowering the BAC thresholds in the statutory definitions of impaired and drunk driving. These positions are not mutually exclusive.
Throughout my presentation, I will be referring to material provided in the red binder.
There have been at least two internal studies done by the CT Office of Legislative Research on this issue. One dated May 5, 1998 dealt with national statistics from NHTSA and the other dated February 1, 1999 evaluated CT experience and neighboring states. Both studies came to the conclusion that there was no statistical validity to claim a safety benefit in lowering the BAC percentages from current levels.
Drunk drivers are a problem, but not an epidemic. Using NHTSA’s own statistics Chart 1 you can see that the national trend of alcohol related fatalities has been decreasing since 1987. This should be no surprise to anyone since over this period more severe drunk driving penalties were instituted, education programs have increased and the population has shown a decreasing trend of alcohol consumption. But even with these reductions, this chart shows 16,189 alcohol related fatalities in 1997. Isn’t that an epidemic?
First note that the 1997 amount represents a 1/3 reduction from the initial year of 1987 in the table. Then remember that the definition of alcohol-related does not mean alcohol-caused. For their own reasons, NHTSA has chosen to define an alcohol related crash as an accident in which a driver, passenger, bicyclist or pedestrian had any measurable alcohol in their system. Furthermore, cause, fault or circumstance are not considered. For example, a winter chain reaction crash on black ice on I91 involving 10 cars and three deaths would be considered alcohol related if one of the drivers had taken some cough syrup medication that morning. If you feel that I am engaging in hyperbole, refer back to the May 5 OLR study that uses the same example.
Lets look at some other statistics, also from NHTSA. In the 1996 fatal experience data you can see that the real problem is among drivers with BAC of .14% or above. Moving the DUI definition below .10% does not address the problem of the high BAC repeat offenders that are causing the accidents.
If you are beginning to doubt all the statistics being thrown at you, remember that no one can prove that lowering the BAC will save lives. But to show you how easy it is to distort statistics, look back at this chart. Although the premise is preposterous, I could make an argument that since 75% of drivers in fatal crashes have no alcohol in their system and 15.6% have a high BAC, you are safer riding with a drunk.
Increasing penalties for repeat offenders and high BAC levels will address the drunk driving problem. Broadening the definition of drunk driving will not and will in fact criminalize behavior that provides no danger to society. Drivers creating no safety risk to themselves or others will soon be classified as drunk and face all the accompanying sanctions.
Please refer to the chart on relative risk and note where current law begins applying sanctions. Ladies and gentlemen of the Transportation Committee, with all due respect, by pursuing a lower BAC agenda, you are trying to completely legislate the risk out of driving. I submit to you that this cannot be done unless you are also planning to continue this quest by making falling asleep at the wheel a felony and outlawing the use of car phones, both behaviors which are involved in far more accidents than drivers with BACs below .10%. Thank you very much for your consideration.