The Politics of Alcohol: Way Over the Limit

May 31, 2000 at 4:00 am
A few months ago, I had a few drinks with some friends on Laclede's Landing. I didn't feel drunk, but I was pretty much at my limit for alcohol consumption and driving when I left.

Walking alone to my car in the Landing parking garage, I noticed a couple of policemen standing there, and as I looked up at them, I gracefully proceeded to kick over a couple of empty beer cans, transforming the garage into a Grand Canyon of clattering aluminum echoes. Way to go, Suave Guy.

Sure enough, the officers decided to assist me. As I approached my car, they invited me to take a little sobriety test, and I agreed -- choking down a raging panic attack -- but not before offering to call myself a cab (and a few other names as well).

This would be my first Breathalyzer test. Though I technically hadn't done anything wrong, I was now certain I was in trouble.

First they gave me a vision test, telling me to follow the cop's hand. I turned my head from side to side as if I was at a tennis match -- rolling their eyes, the cops had to tell me to keep my damn head still -- and, on the basis of dork factor alone, they proceeded to the Breathalyzer.

I blew in a couple of times, and, now feeling certain that I must be sloppy-drunk wasted, I breathlessly awaited my result.

I was at 0.033, they said.

"Am I over the limit?" I asked, remembering something about a point-one level and thinking that I might have tripled it.

"No, you're not even close," one of the officers said. "You're about a third of the way there. Why don't you just go home?"

I was stunned. I simply couldn't believe that, at my personal limit, I was so far below the legal limit that all I was receiving was a couple of disgusted looks that said, "Get the hell in your car and watch where you're walking next time, you moron."

It was a relief, but a bit humiliating nonetheless.

"I never did well on standardized tests," I explained.

The cops weren't especially amused, and I left without further incident.

That's my one and only anecdotal experience in the world of blood-alcohol content, and I share it this week on the heels of the news that the state of Missouri has lost $15 million in federal highway funds for failing to lower its drunken-driving threshold from 0.1 to 0.08. The state would have received those dollars for enacting an 0.08 standard under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century signed by President Bill Clinton.

On the basis of my own experience at less than half that 0.08 level, I can't imagine anyone fighting for a "right" to drive with that much alcohol in one's system. But they not only fought, they won.

It turns out that liquor-industry interests, led by St. Louis' own Anheuser-Busch, were successful in killing a bill in the state Legislature last session that would have lowered the limits. It also turns out that A-B is the largest corporate contributor to the state Republican and Democratic parties.

A report by the Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform called "Under the Influence" showed that the liquor industry gave $131,578 to state legislative candidates in 1998 -- with A-B donating about 70 percent of that total -- and came to the obvious conclusion that it was hardly a coincidence that the bill lowering the limit died.

"Anheuser-Busch is a major prop of both political parties, so when push comes to shove, nobody's going to mess with them," said Pat Harvey, Alliance director. For the Alliance, this is a perfect example of the need for campaign-finance reform, and it stands out because it's such a clear case of money winning out over common sense and decency.

The news that legislators may be purchased like six-packs is hardly stunning to anyone familiar with the time-honored tradition of free beer flowing far more freely than water in the state Capitol. But what is amazing is that A-B would conduct itself in such an amoral and arrogant fashion as to lobby openly against a limit reduction that is so clearly in the public interest in terms of both money and safety (and that can't possibly devastate alcohol sales).

"Policy leaders carefully evaluated the facts and concluded lowering the blood-alcohol level to 0.08 isn't a viable tool," Mark Boranyak, A-B director of state affairs, said. It "does not address the underlying problem: repeat drunk driving offenders typically apprehended with (blood-alcohol) levels of 0.15 or higher."

It sounds like the NRA's Charlton Heston is writing that material. Why toughening penalties for outrageously drunk drivers should mean not tightening the laws for "merely" drunk drivers is a fascinating exercise in twisted logic.

Moreover, advocates of the 0.08 level needn't be held to some "viable tool" standard. Consider this from the national Institute of Insurance Information: In 1999, 15,794 drivers who had some measure of alcohol in their blood (at or below the legal limit) were killed in motor-vehicle crashes.

That doesn't even account for the other people they killed and disabled, or all the millions whose lives were wounded in the process.

"There is an alcohol-related traffic fatality every 33 minutes," the Institute reported. "If drunk driving is not significantly reduced, three out of every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash during their lifetimes."

So what possibly could persuade even the dim lights of Missouri's Legislature to cling to the higher and less safe standards at a cost not only of lives but of millions to their cash-poor state coffers? Why, it's that NRA-style slippery-slope argument.

Reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Some lawmakers also undermined the (lowered limits) effort by suggesting that a limit of 0.05 percent is on the political horizon, although no state has a DWI standard lower than 0.08 percent.

"'I do believe it could head in that direction,' said Rep. Dorathea Davis, D-St. Louis. 'Last time -- 0.10. Next time what? They're going to keep pushing and pushing.'"

God forbid. What are "they" trying do to us, get rid of drunken driving altogether?

I think everyone -- including the legislators and lobbyists -- should get the opportunity to be tested for blood-alcohol level after imbibing a little. It was certainly an eye-opener for me.

I don't know how anyone else drives at 0.08, but I'd rather not find out.

And if I do, by all means, go ahead and arrest me.