By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
March 22, 2019
We like to say that the Nanny State isn’t a destination as much as a journey. In other words, politicians who promote laws to protect people from themselves might not have a particular end goal in mind, but will always come up with new ways to regulate behavior in the name of public safety.
In a legislative session that’s already seen envelope-pushing proposals to ban the sale of flavored-tobacco products and Big-Gulp-style drinks, one particular Nanny State proposal has been garnering attention because of the wide-ranging affect it could have on casual drinkers.
Assembly Bill 1713 would reduce the blood-alcohol level (BAC) used to determine whether someone is drunken driving from 0.08 to 0.05. Advocates say the stricter standard, adopted in Utah and some European countries, will save lives. The bill is called “Liam’s Law,” after a toddler who was tragically killed in 2016 after an alleged drunken driver plowed into his stroller.
The details of that horrible event highlight a core problem with such bills. As various news reports suggested, the blood-alcohol content of the driver, who was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter, may have been well above the current BAC. Too often, in the face of health or safety problems, politicians pass new laws that wouldn’t actually have addressed the targeted problem.
A January report in The Lancet tracked accidents five years after Scotland lowered its limit from 0.08 to 0.05. It concluded that lowering the BAC limit “was not associated with a reduction” in road-traffic accidents, and that “changing the legal BAC limit for drivers in isolation” does not change accident figures. The new policy, however, “was associated with a small reduction in per-capita alcohol consumption.”
That’s not hard to understand. Many people drink less while out at pubs or restaurants to avoid getting stopped for DUI. Such arrests can lead to jail stays, costly legal bills and the loss of one’s driver’s license. People who actually are impaired deserve those harsh punishments, but we fear that reducing the legal limit will mainly ensnare people who might not be impaired. The goal should be removing drunks from the road, not arresting non-drunks.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that 92 percent of alcohol-related fatalities involve a driver with a BAC of 0.10, according to Jackson Shedelbower of the American Beverage Institute. This confirms other information we’ve seen: the main drunken-driving dangers come from a relatively small group of heavy drinkers, not from people who have had a glass of wine or two with dinner.
Drunken driving remains a serious danger. Indeed, almost all Nanny State proposals target real, societal problems. But the question remains: What is the most effective way to further reduce alcohol-related accidents and fatalities?
We fear that lowering the BAC will simply make it easier for police agencies to set up checkpoints and then issue press releases about the growing number of drunken drivers that they have removed from the road. Yet it’s better to divert scarce resources to programs and policing efforts that capture the real scofflaws. We need to make our streets safer, not journey down Nanny State Road, where passing more laws seems to be only destination.