Bus tragedy: fault alcohol first

The heart goes out to the families of the 27 victims of the May 14 bus crash near Carrollton, Ky. They deserve all the compassion and comfort we can give. But there can be no comfort in still another death. Yet the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for Larry Mahoney, who survived when his pickup truck collided head-on with that busload of teen-agers returning from a church outing.

Granted, Mr. Mahoney appears to have been at fault. He was driving the wrong way on Interstate 71. But this is no deranged assailant, no hardened terrorist coldly murdering the innocent. This is a man who had far too much to drink - and had a history of drunken driving. Punish him, certainly. But kill him? Surely there's a better way.

That way involves taking a long, hard look at the underlying causes of the tragedy. So far, news media attention has focused on the bus itself, which didn't meet current safety standards. But there's a stunning silence concerning a far more significant cause: alcohol.

When a society countenances the advertising, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages, it must be prepared to make a proper assignment of blame when the use of alcohol results in tragedy. The tendency, instead, has been to blame the drunkards and hold them solely accountable.

That makes no sense, for three reasons.

1.When addictive substances other than alcohol are involved, we play by different rules. We combat illegal drugs (which take many fewer lives than alcohol) in part by going after the sources. It doesn't occur to us to separate drug producers and dealers from the effects of their wares: We're clear on the cause-and-effect relationship between their activities and the wreckage of individual lives.

And we're just beginning to think that way about tobacco. A case now in the New Jersey courts seeks damages from tobacco companies in the death of a chain smoker. And last week the surgeon general, officially reporting that tobacco is addicting, urged tougher measures to make manufacturers announce that fact on cigarette packs. We're coming to believe, in other words, that those who profit from deadly vices must share the blame when those vices actually prove deadly.

2.To rest the blame solely on the drinker is to misunderstand the nature of abuse. What kind of society is it, after all, that makes a practice of leading individuals toward abuse and then punishing them for failing to avoid it? What kind of society is it that spends millions to make the abuse particularly difficult to resist - advertising alcohol vigorously, playing up its allure, and making it widely available at very low prices? What kind of society is it that provides no serious education to help its young avoid the temptation? What kind of society, banging like a pendulum between guilt over its indulgences and rage over their consequences, can survive if it fails to rouse itself from such self-destructive habits?

3.Blaming only the drunkard overlooks a fact recognized by growing numbers of reformed alcoholics: that the only meaningful temperance is abstinence. The alcohol industry thrives on the distinction between temperance and abstinence - piously condemning drunkenness, while asserting the harmlessness of drinking in moderation. It's a phony distinction. It perpetuates the notion that abusers alone are at fault for not knowing enough to limit their intake - which ignores the mental pressures that often lead to problem drinking in the first place. And it fosters the ``can't happen to me'' syndrome that so often entangles the casual dabbler in unwitting addiction.

What's to be done? The answer doesn't lie in prohibition - which would drive up the price, make alcohol even more profitable, and give it all the glamour of a taboo. It lies in education. The public needs to understand that executing drunken drivers is not the answer. What needs to be put on trial is the alcohol industry itself. Then, when it is found an accessory to crimes such as occurred in Kentucky, the financial penalties need to be so severe as to make the alcoholic beverage business an extremely unpleasant and risky undertaking.

But there's a footnote here. Such education could come about most effectively through the press. That's not happening. Could it be that there's a relationship between the strange silence on this subject and the amount of liquor advertising in so many of today's papers?

A Monday column

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