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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Having written on strong driving-under-the-influence laws, and having taken a profoundly positive stance, I’d like to back off that a bit. There currently is a movement to reduce the prima facie proof of impairment by alcohol from a blood alcohol content, or BAC, of .08 percent to .05 percent. This is stupidly wrong.
Forty years ago, Vermont was premier in instituting an aggressive program to reduce highway deaths. It was wildly successful. Deaths due to DUI were reduced by 40 percent within two years. I was tangentially involved in the program, even though I became administrator of the Vermont Health Department a year later. My minor part was to deliver a lecture to convicted DUIs. More on that later.
The first issue officials with the CRASH Program (I forget what the acronym stood for — someone clever probably thought that up) dealt with was what “under the influence” meant. They settled on “impaired.” To determine what “impaired” meant, they set up a driving test that required proper vision, reflexes and motor dexterity. Then they got people drunk.
Yup. Sometimes science is fun.
Here’s what they found out: A broad spectrum of people could negotiate the course up to the level of .10 percent BAC. Some failed at .03 percent, some at .05 percent. Some passed at .05 percent and .09 percent. No one passed the test at .10 percent or higher. No one.
This was good enough to argue for prima facie proof of impairment at .10 percent. “Prima facie ” means if you blow in the box and it registers .10 percent or higher, you are automatically guilty of driving under the influence. No appeal.
The most important issues of the CRASH program, though, were to come. Police and judges needed to be trained to detect and process impaired drivers. The public needed to be educated. Then, those who were arrested needed to be processed through a system to actually solve the problem of getting drunken drivers off the road. So the next step was to create the system.
I was a small part of the system. My lecture was highly information based. It concentrated on the difference between my class and the general population. For example, and trust me on this, it is very difficult for an average social drinker to get to a .10 percent BAC. That would be, for a 160-pound man, six drinks (1 ounce of alcohol) in the first hour and at least one drink an hour afterward.
The people in my classes were not .10 percent drinkers. Every class I gave had an average BAC of about .23 percent. Very few people can get to .13 percent. It takes a lot of practice to get to .23 percent. I had a 16-year-old who, when pulled out of her Camaro tested at .32 percent at the hospital. My class was obviously an intake program for Alcoholics Anonymous. And, yeah, it was a solid partner in the CRASH program. Considering that it is the most time-tested, proven and effective program, if you want to get drunks off the road and solve the problem, get them into AA.
So, back to my complaint about the .05 percent BAC level of prima facie proof of impairment. T’aint so. It’s been proven. To take prima facie proof of impairment back to this level is only creating a new class of criminal. And for the “criminal,” this means a choice of riding a moped for a year or trying to fight it, the fight costing thousands of dollars with no guarantee of winning.
Under a .05 percent BAC rule, our hypothetical 160-pound man would hit that level with three after-work beers in an hour at the Coffee Pot with his buddies. Question: Is he impaired? Maybe. But is that good enough to send him through hell for the next year if he touches the double line or hits 40 mph on Brambleton Road?
As an addendum, once, on the way to one of my lectures, my partner, an AA recruiter, asked me, “Do you control your drinking?” Fumbling for an answer, I mumbled, “I guess so.” To which he replied, “And how do you do that?” To that, I had no answer at all.
What he told me then profoundly changed the way I looked at drinking. He said: “The way you drink is that you stop when you think you’ve had enough. You’re going to meet tonight a whole roomful of people who can’t do that.” Up the limit to .10 percent and do the CRASH program.
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