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Anti-alcohol Zeal Has Replaced
MADD's Common Sense

        John Doyle, Scripps Howard News Service

It started when you brought your kids to the restaurant. Anxiety began to set in when you ordered that single glass of wine. Driving home, you hit a police roadblock. And the courts took your kids away.

Sound like the trailer for a bad movie? It's actually a top priority for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. This previously admirable group has slipped into pure anti-alcohol zealotry with its ''zero tolerance'' campaign against drinking anything at all before driving. If you are a divorced parent who drives your kids safely home after having a single drink, MADD wants you to lose your parental rights. That's right, MADD wants this Prohibitionist requirement written into every separation agreement and divorce decree.

Reducing the legal blood-alcohol concentration, or BAC, arrest threshold to zero ' whether for divorced parents or anyone else ' may sound like a get-tough policy, but even MADD knows that won't lessen the drunk driving problem. During the last few years, nearly every state in the nation has reduced its BAC limit from .10 percent to .08 percent. The result? Drunk driving fatalities have actually increased.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported ''some experts worry that new laws will actually reduce the attention placed on catching highly intoxicated drivers that cause the most deadly accidents.'' Indeed, the founder of MADD says ''the movement I helped create has lost direction. (Lowering legal BAC limits) ignores the real core of the problem... If we really want to save lives, let's go after the most dangerous drivers on the road.''

At their news conference announcing the zero tolerance policy for divorced parents, MADD highlighted two tragic cases in which mothers killed or injured their children in alcohol-related accidents. Both women had a BAC approximately three times the legal limit. Clearly MADD's call for zero tolerance would have had no impact on these product abusers.

Drunken drivers involved in fatal accidents have an average BAC of .16 percent, which is already twice the legal limit in most states. To get that drunk, a 180-pound man would have to drink eight beers in one hour, or one drink every seven minutes. According to Herb Simpson, the winner of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving's 2003 ''Humanitarian of the Year'' Award, ''These people don't have a glass of wine with dinner or a couple of beer(s). They're having 8, 10, 12, 14... '' Even MADD admits that the drunk driving problem has been reduced to a ''hard core of alcoholics.''

No one with an IQ above room temperature condones drunk driving, but it is absurd to equate alcohol abusers with the 25 million Americans who drink responsibly prior to driving. Scientific evidence proves that this legal behavior is far safer than driving while talking on a cell phone with a hands-free device. Studies from the University of Utah, the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere show that drivers using a hands-free cell phone are more ''impaired'' than drivers at .08 percent BAC.

Lowering BAC limits below the ubiquitous .08 percent will only fill our courtrooms with adults who, by current law and common sense, are driving responsibly. Policemen have better things to do than wait around to testify about a divorced father who had one beer at a ballpark before driving his kids home. And let's not forget the six hours policemen can spend ' mostly on paperwork ' just making and processing a DWI arrest.

So why would anyone want to focus law enforcement resources on a mom who had a glass of wine with dinner? Ideology.

All too often, traffic safety policy has been hijacked by puritanical opponents of adult beverages. Utah recently passed a MADD-blessed law lowering BAC levels to .05 percent for repeat offenders with kids in the car. George Van Komen, who co-wrote an original version of the law calling for .02 percent, opposes all alcohol consumption, period. He leads an organization formerly called the Anti-Saloon League and the National Temperance League.

Temperance is also on the tongue of MADD's highest officials. MADD President Wendy Hamilton recently wrote ''the thought that (driving) can be successfully combined with alcohol on the part of the driver or even the passengers defies any logic I can imagine.'' Even the passengers? Is MADD so anti-alcohol that they oppose designated drivers? A lobbying behemoth, MADD has an annual budget of $46 million. It spends more than $12 million a year on salaries and benefits. Now that the drunk driving problem has been reduced to alcoholics who happily ignore their PR campaigns, MADD has become an institution in search of a mission. Its latest campaigns are demonstrative of its new cause: prohibition, drip by drip.

The peril posed by alcohol abusers, who are the primary cause of the nation's drunk driving problem today, will remain undiminished as long as law enforcement focuses on the wrong target: adults who drive legally, responsibly and safely after drinking moderately. Political and financial resources being finite, it is imperative not to spend them chasing responsible parents just to keep special interest groups in business.

John Doyle is executive director of the American Beverage Institute, an association of restaurants committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages.


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