Drunk driving: what's needed is a basic change in attitude

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The Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving has issued its marching orders -- to Congress, the states, and the public at large. Get tough, it has said. Boost the drinking age to 21; suspend licenses; issue stiffer fines; send more offenders to jail; reeducate the American public that people should not drive it they have been drinkng.

Good stuff -- but not good enough. What is needed along with all these things is a basic change of attitudes, not only about drinking and driving but about drinking itself.

Let's face it, we're far beyond the "drink sensibly" stage. Alcohol is a dangerous drug. It's not something that can be safety used sparingly -- or in moderation. Abstinence can no longer be viewed as a puritanical concept. To many, it's now a matter of survival.

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Unfortunately, it's not politic to advocate total abstention. Presidential commissions, state legislatures, and even addiction research groups stop short of that. They tak about the do-able, the acceptable. But the do-able and acceptale in a society that still condones driving and drinking, albeit in moderation, does not adequately address the problem, much less solve it.

The statistics themselves should be sobering enough to prod a rethinking of values. More than 250,000 Americans have been killed over the last decade in accidents caused by drunken drivers. Roughly 50 percent of all traffic fatalities are alcohol-related. And drunk driving is the leading cause of death of people between age 16 and 24. The economic toll of all this: $5 billion a year.

Will stiffer sentences, licnese revocations, and raising the drinking age trim these figures? We hope it will help. But even commission members doubt that, without a basic change in public attitudes, the impact will be wide.

What then? Prohibition? Outlawing of liquor? Those who remember Prohibition also remember that it didn't work. Public acceptance was no widespread. Where there wasn't open defiance of the law, organized crime had a heyday transporting bootleg liquor. Also, the outright ban of any commerical product, liquor included, would likely not stand up to a constitutional test.

It's really up to society. In the Scandinavian countries, drinking and driving is much less of problem than in the United States, partly because public attitudes there strongly condemn it.

Here it's different. There doesn't seem to be any basic don't-drive-if-you-drink value, at least not yet. Under certain circumstances, we're willing to curtail alcohol use. But even then, we are very reluctant to talk about abstinence.

It may be trite, but it's true that the solution starts in the home. If parents use alchol and relate it to social niceties and conviviality, how can they expect their children to reject it -- even under spcial circumstances? The adage "Do what I say, not what I do" just doesn't pass muster with the younger generation today -- with one exception. Children who grow up in homes where an adult is an alcoholic are more apt to reject liquor completely than those who see it used in "happy hour" circumstances.

Parents can't have it both ways. Fear that they'll be considered square, prim, prissy, or prudish shold not deter them from taking a strong stance against a practice that threatens the well-being of those children.

Unfortunately, it often takes tragedy to trigger action. And, also unfortunately, as the hurt disappears from view the resolve for remedy often abates.

For instance, the small Masschusetts community in which this columnist resides suffered the loss of serveral youngsters in a year's time from alcohol-related auto accidents. The town rallied, formed a citizen group to combat and publicize the problem, enlisted youth to counsel their peers about the dangers of intoxication, and even opened a center to provide weekend social activity for youngsters as an alternative to driving around and drinking. In time, however, enthusiasm for these programs waned. And many townspeople are now concerned that the impact of the campaign will be weakened.

Other towns and cities that pursue antidrinking programs during so-called crisis times, such New Year's face the same problem. Community campaigns should be ongoing. They must involve a broad base of people, including the seemingly highly vulnerable youth. And they should focus on altering basic attitudes about drinking -- in or out of autos.

The help of the communications media is needed. Advertisements for hard liquor are already voluntarily banned from TV and are diappearing from many newspapers. But for many potential drinkers, beer and wine are just intoxicating and dangerous. Ads that tie alcohol to financial and social success should be dropped. Or at least, as with tobacco, liquor advertising and packaging should carry the warning that it is hazardous to one's health.

Use of alcohol has long been associated by some people with temporary escape from the burdens of society. Public opinion polls indicate teen-agers believe drinking helps relieve the tensions of schoolwork, family conflict, and concerns about nuclear war. Young people need to be reeducated that this kind of "remedy" not only brings no release, but may induce a worse malady.

Executive fiat, and legislation are all to the good. But the influence of families, schools, and churches is vitally needed to get at the root of this problem.

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