Reducing drunken-driving tragedies

A new study suggests tougher laws will work and a new task force points to higher taxes that change behavior.

South Hackensack Police Department via AP/File
Police in South Hackensack, N.J., say a woman who was drunk continued driving with a mass transit sign sticking out of the roof of her car. She was charged with driving while intoxicated and careless driving.

Sobering statistics tell the story of how alcohol and driving combine in a tragic mix.

Alcohol-impaired drivers in the United States cause more than 10,000 road deaths each year – about a third of all traffic deaths. Nearly 40 percent of the victims are people other than the drunken drivers themselves.

A comprehensive federal study just released Wednesday contains sensible steps that could be taken now to reduce these tragedies. And today two prominent Americans – former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers – announced that alcohol abuse would be among the "big three" health threats that their new task force would battle.

Both efforts focus new attention on the persistent scurge of alcohol abuse.

The new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) urges states to cut the legal definition for impaired driving from 0.08 to 0.05 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC). 

The US would join more than 100 countries that already enforce this tougher standard. An earlier study showed that within 10 years of adopting a BAC of 0.05 percent as the legal limit in Europe, for example, drunken-driving deaths were cut by more than half.

Strong evidence also suggests that higher alcohol taxes reduce binge drinking, the NASEM study reports.

The new Task Force on Fiscal Policy for Health headed by Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Summers aims to reduce the growing number of health problems worldwide attributed to the use of alcohol and tobacco, and obesity. 

In 2012, about 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9 percent of all deaths worldwide, were attributed to alcohol consumption. 

But higher tobacco taxes have contributed to a decrease of about one-third in tobacco sales in Brazil, Summers writes in an essay in The Washington Post. Higher taxes on alcohol could have a similar positive effect.

The effort will make use of research into human behavior, including an understanding of the tendency in thought to go along with what others do. This state of mind can be put to positive use. 

“I see it all the time when we go out to dinner with friends. Nobody wants to be the only person to have dessert,” Summers told The Wall Street Journal. “So if you start discouraging [overeating], there’s a multiplicative effect where other people are discouraged.”

The same approach could be used with alcohol consumption. Attitudes that seem intractable can change. “[T]he transition from inconceivable to inevitable can be very fast,” Summers says.

Higher taxes on alcohol would not only make alcohol consumption more expensive, cutting sales, it would signal a kind of public disapproval. Higher taxes on tobacco in recent decades in the US and other countries have proved effective in reducing its use.

Summers sees these as “good” taxes that both raise valuable revenue and promote behaviors that benefit all of society.

Someday, perhaps, driverless vehicles may keep those whose faculties are impaired by the use of alcohol (or drugs, or mobile devices) from sitting behind the wheel. But even that will fail to address the many other harms to individuals and families (lost jobs, broken homes, and much more) that result from the use of alcohol.

In the meantime thousands of lives could be spared by enacting stricter drunken-driving laws and raising alcohol taxes.

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