Beer Nut: Drunk driving laws have worked wonders

Linda D. Garrow

No one likes to have their rights abrogated. Beer drinkers are no different.

But beer, being an intoxicant, has inherent problems that need to be controlled by societal norms, customs and, yes, even laws.

Bartenders have to take courses on when and how to shut people off. Bars usually have rules to limit consumption. No one wants anyone to get behind the wheel of a vehicle when they’re impaired. So it just makes sense that we have laws that make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle when one has too high of a blood alcohol level.

Of course these thresholds and limits have changed over the years. In 1910, New York became the first state to pass a law against drunk driving. The punishment for being convicted was $1,000 and a year in jail. However, the early laws only vaguely prohibited driving while drunk, without any firm definition of what constituted the crime.

By 1938, the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council suggested a blood alcohol content of .15% should be the line where inebriation is said to have occurred. After the invention of the Breathalyzer, some states decided that the permissible level should be .12% or .10%.

Of course some drinkers grumbled about these limits. Sadly, there is a long history of people who think it’s some badge of honor to be able to “handle their liquor” better than most. And while different people metabolize alcohol differently, no one is exempt from getting impaired at some point.

In 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded, and together with Students Against Drunk Driving, forced Congress to pass tougher laws against drunk driving. Ultimately in 2000, the federal government made the blood alcohol level threshold .08% for being considered impaired. States had to either comply or lose federal highway funding. By 2004, all states were in line.

Government studies showed that simply reducing the threshold from .10% to .08% saved about 500 lives a year.

I’d bet that most people, even those who drink a fair amount, don’t have a problem with that change. (When people do have a problem with blood alcohol limits, it’s usually when they’re drunk. Go figure.) There simply is no reason for a clear-minded, sober person to object to limits being put on how much some can drink and still operate a motor vehicle. It’s just common sense.

Of course, in this day and age, there is a strain of “but mah rights!” citizens who take an overzealous approach to libertarianism. They don’t like the government butting into their lives in any manner. (But I think moderation is always a good thing, even with libertarianism.) And even a lot of those “hands-off” people usually are cool with reasonable government constraints.

In 2020, 11,654 people died in crashes where a driver had an illegal blood alcohol level. This is down from 21,113 in 1982. (Source:

That’s a decrease of 45%. That’s a lot of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children and spouses who didn’t have to answer the door, only to find a police officer standing there waiting to give them the worst news they’d probably ever hear.

Stricter measures and enforcement have worked wonders with cutting down on drunk driving. As human beings, we are all flawed. Sometimes we need stricter laws and enforcement to keep us from hurting ourselves and others.

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