Opinionated to the end, and to a fault, I intend to offer a judgment of my own when God calls me to Judgment. I shall tell Him that creation would be better if atoms were unsplittable, if the flora did not include tobacco, and if grape and grain did not ferment. This last would be severe, but would solve the problem of drunk driving, a problem that illustrates how small a role reason plays in the life of society.
In America, more people drive than vote, and the automobile is a vehicle of self-expression as well as transportation. It is an instrument for risk-taking in a society that offers few opportunities for that, now that the frontier is closed and the Comanche are calm. And in America, most entertainment involves driving to and from places where alcohol is consumed.
Drunk drivers do more than ruin their chances in this world and their prospects in the next. They butcher Americans much faster than the Vietnam war did, and cost society $5 billion each year in court time, rehabilitation, lost earnings and other expenses. Drunk drivers also illustrate an oddity of modern society, the irrational perception of risks.
We spend billions on research to reduce the dangers of disease. But the only substantial public health improvements we could attain by choice, immediately, depend not on diagnostic or pharmacological breakthroughs but on behavioral changes: smoking less and using automobiles more rationally.
When polio was killing 300 people annually, parents feared for their children. Drunk drivers will kill 86 times that many people this year, yet few Americans are alarmed. They are rightly alarmed about violent crime, and about handguns, yet drunk drivers account for the most common form of violent death.
When toxic shock killed some women, the publicity killed a product. A few instances of botulism destroyed a soup company. But the public that reacts swiftly to such dangers is not comparably aroused by the fact that a life is lost every 21 minutes in an alcohol-related crash, and one out of every two Americans will eventually be involved in an alcohol-related crash.
Newspapers editorialize about the dangers of commercial nuclear power plants (which have killed no one) while advertising cigarettes, which will contribute to 340,000 deaths this year. If Americans used seat belts they would save 28,000 lives this year. But seat- belt use is declining while anxieties about remote dangers are rising.
7-Up is spending millions to market a new cola, the supposed virtue of which is that it contains no caffeine. Passing over the nuttiness of selling soda pop by stressing a health issue, it is unclear why we should add caffeine to the lengthening list of modern worries, or at least why it should rank any higher than, say, the menace of buttered popcorn. People afraid of flying sigh with relief when they get off a plane and onto a normal highway where, on a normal weekend night, one in 10 drivers is, by the law's definition, drunk.
The president has enlisted in the campaign against drunk driving, but a Maryland congressman, Michael Barnes, stole the march with legislation proposing, among other things, a strict and national definition of intoxication in terms of blood-alcohol concentration level. All states should have a drinking age of 21, so teen-agers would not be learning to handle cars and alcohol simultaneously. That means, practically, the federal government should legislate a national drinking age. Otherwise, federalism will pose a problem: teen-agers will drive next door to a more liberal state.
Given human nature, fear must frequently do the work of reason. Experience in several states and European countries confirms what common sense suggests: fear of punishment -- punishment sure and severe and well-publicized--influences drinkers who drive.
If punishment is to deter, severity must compensate for uncertainty. When there is only a slight chance that someone committing an offense will be caught, punishment must be fearsome. Only about one of every 2,000 drunk drivers is arrested, and the chance of severe punishment for hurtling out of control in a ton of steel is, today, statistically negligible. What's needed include long suspensions of licenses and mandatory jail terms.
When reform comes, it will be due, in large measure, to MADD--Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Behind this potent organization stretches a line of tiny coffins and small quadriplegics' wheelchairs. MADD is evidence that there is no political force comparable to the fury generated by injuries done to children.