Dempsey Challenges Unreasonable Alcohol Laws

Bob Dempsey, the coroner of San Miguel County, wrote a critique of two of MADD’s policies, the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol limit for driving and the 21-year age restriction. Dempsey’s article was published on December 29 in The Telluride Watch. Regarding the blood-alcohol limit, Dempsey writes:

… Among coroners who I have talked to, most believe problems don’t begin until about 0.12, which would be a more realistic legal level. … At 0.08 there is little probability of causing an accident. Because of MADD’s low-limit success, the fight against drunk driving has shifted from serious abusers to responsible drinkers. Law enforcement has become less selective, less prepared to ferret out drunk drivers and is losing focus on the real threat, namely, habitually drunk drivers. …

Karolyn Nunnallee, president of MADD, predicted in 2000 that a nationwide 0.08 standard “will save 600 lives every year.”

It hasn’t worked that way. The July 2007 issue of Contemporary Economic Policy examined data by Sam Houston State University and concluded, “There’s no evidence that lowering the legal level reduced fatality rates.”

Regarding laws that raise the legal drinking age to 21 — laws that I have long opposed on grounds of fairness — Dempsey writes:

This 21-year-old law has helped the “forbidden fruit” reputation of alcohol, and is linked to an astonishing increase in binge drinking among adolescents and young adults. Drinking to intoxication is the norm for 18-20 year olds, which significantly impairs one’s ability to make safe decisions, including the choice to get behind the wheel of an automobile.

When I went to college with an 18-year age-limit on drinking, there was no thought of binge drinking. We had too much fun socializing at lounges, behaving as responsible young adults. We would have been stigmatized otherwise. It could be the same today if we gave our youth a chance. This approach works in the rest of the world.

Our youth are better prepared today because MADD has done a superb job of educating the public of the dangers of drunk driving. But, they are unrelenting and refuse to admit that prohibition never works, causes more reckless drinking and worse, it forces it underground and breeds disrespect for the law.

Dempsey notes that Canadian provinces successfully lowered their drinking ages from 21 to 18 or 19. He notes that the organization “Choose Responsibly” is working to lower the drinking age in the United States.