By James J. Baxter
This morning I did a radio interview in Indianapolis. The subject was "open container" laws. There were three proponents of a new open container law. And, me--representing the devil.
It seems a very capable and valued activist member of the NMA had the audacity to write an editorial criticizing open container laws and suggesting they were little more than symbolism and political pandering. He even implied that they were counterproductive because they diluted attention and resources that could be better used to reduce the true drunk driving problem.
Our member was subsequently invited to a radio talk show where he restated his unpopular but well-presented position. Nine out of ten callers agreed with him!
This set off an alarm with the forces supporting open container legislation and they engineered a follow-up talk show program on the same subject. In the process, they questioned the credibility of our member and his statements. Unfortunately, a business obligation prevented him from being on the talk show and he asked me to stand in, in his stead.
My opponents consisted of a State senator, who was sponsoring the open container legislation, a local D.A. who had been using the DWI issue as a means to get publicity, and the father of a young boy who had been killed by a driver with a .11 BAC. The one thing they all had in common was a thorough lack of knowledge on the subject.
I can hear your concerns and comments already. "Don't get involved in this issue." "People shouldn't be drinking and driving." "How can we oppose such logical legislation?" And, I'm sure the list will grow longer with criticism and harsh rebukes.
I took the interview for three reasons: our member deserved my support, our member was correct in what he was saying, and there is an overwhelming need for a little honesty and integrity in the whole DWI issue.
Once again (for those who have forgotten), drunk drivers do not cause 50% of all highway fatalities. Drivers with low BAC's are not necessarily dangerously impaired. The police do not need low BAC's or open container laws to arrest drunk drivers. And, we do not constructively deal with drunk driver problems through programs designed to intimidate and harass otherwise law abiding, responsible citizens.
In the context of a society where somewhere around 80% of the adult population consumes alcohol-related beverages, we should look at this issue in the abstract and as it exists in reality.
Several years and millions of dollars of public service announcements, advertisements, and government programs have institutionalized the phrase "Don't Drink and Drive". The same process was used to ingrain our favorite slogan, "Speed Kills".
While most people, in the abstract, acknowledge the merit of these admonishments, the reality is interpreted quite differently. "Don't Drink and Drive" doesn't mean you can't have a few drinks at the company picnic, wine with dinner, or a couple of beers after putting a new roof on a friend's garage, and then drive home. That's why the legal BAC is at .1 or .08 instead of zero. There's a tacit recognition that most people can drive safely after having had a few drinks.
When it comes to open container laws, the abstract concept, "Don't Drink and Drive", comes into blunt conflict with reality.
If a person consumes a beverage containing alcohol while they drive, they can't very well give lip service to the evils of drinking and driving.
The question inevitably becomes: "Why is having a drink while driving more dangerous than having a drink and then driving?" It's a good question. It's a well established fact that the nature of alcohol absorption is such that the person who drinks first and then drives will have a higher BAC than the person who consumes the same amount of alcohol in the process of transit.
It's fairly obvious that the rub comes in because drinking and driving flies right in the face of the canon "Don't Drink and Drive". It can't be rationalized.
So, can the issue be discussed in a cold, hard logical way, minus sloganeering and emotional diatribes? Not very easily.
Is there any data that supports the contention that open container laws reduce traffic accidents? No. In fact, Indiana without an open container law has a far better record on alcohol-related accidents than many states with open container laws, lower BAC's, and stiffer penalties.
Is there any data that proves open container laws are practical or enforceable? No. It's a good bet that most motorists don't even know the scope of the open container law in their state.
Is there any data that proves habitual drunk drivers are dissuaded by the existence of an open container law? No. Neither are they dissuaded by a host of severe penalties.
When confronted with these indelicate conclusions, my debate opponents yelled, "Common sense tells us this is a good law!" Common sense tells us a 16-pound bowling ball falls faster than a 12-ounce softball. I suspect most NMA members know they fall at the same speed, in great defiance of "common sense".
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