Diatribe No. 114: Zero Tolerance
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there was a lovely land with beautiful citizens and wonderful children. The area around their schools was posted with a 20 mph speed limit.
One day a woman who had an excellent driving record, but who was distracted, ran through the school zone at about 35 mph. She killed a 6-year-old boy who chased his basketball across the street in front of her, because that’s what little boys do.
The town fathers were angry, so they banned all automobiles from the area around the school. Zero tolerance of cars is the answer, they said.
Things went well for a time, but the children soon started playing in the street and forgot all about how to deal with automobiles. One day a fellow who was talking on his cell phone, drinking coffee, and listening to his very loud radio, drove past the school at 50 mph. He killed five children. He was cited and fined only $300, since no drugs or alcohol were involved.
The city fathers were furious, so they passed a law demanding the death penalty on all who violated their zero tolerance policy by driving within the school zone. They issued a proclamation declaring:
“Zero Tolerance will continue until all tolerance is eliminated.” Everyone lived happily ever after for a while.
The Melon Heads
On TV recently (CBS’s “Judging Amy”) one of the characters, Maxine Grey, a children’s caseworker, declared, “Zero tolerance are the easiest words for a politician to say.” She was trying to deal with a zero tolerance politician, making an ass of himself while running for governor.
Time after time we hear from such melon heads, as they try to rule out any possibility of compromise while dealing with people in trouble with drugs, childcare, affordable housing, and schools.
Recently, a 7-year-old boy was sent home for mentioning the fact that he had two “mothers” who were lesbian. We can’t have anyone mentioning “lesbian” in our schools, not even if one’s mothers actually are lesbian. Zero tolerance.
Now we have Sharon Schuman, who teaches literature at the University of Oregon’s Clark Honors College and directs the UO Residential Academy telling us we need “zero tolerance” for “any alcohol consumption at all before driving.” She wrote a long, melancholy, 1,100-word dissertation in our local newspaper, complete with large headlines and a color photo of beer and hard liquor bottles spelling ZERO. She tells us that 17,000 Americans each year die in “alcohol-related” accidents.
As we know, the government’s statistics are a bit flawed in the “alcohol-related accident” department. An “alcohol-related accident” is any accident that involves anyone who has any blood alcohol level at all. You could be stone-cold sober, driving your besotted father-in-law home, and be hit by a driver running a stop sign, who is also stone-cold sober, and that’s an alcohol-related accident.
Yes, accidents do happen. They even happen to people who do drink a bit and then drive home.
Last February, in our fair city, Michael Meek, a truck driver operating a 73,000-pound trailer rig, at 55-plus mph on one of our city freeways, was on his cell phone and reaching for a cassette tape. Even though the traffic was moving well, and not all that fast, either, he barely noticed that he had rear-ended a Honda Civic and rammed a Ford Ranger to start a chain reaction, multiple-car crash, interstate inferno that killed two. True, Meek did jump out of his cab to rescue one motorist from a burning vehicle. As for the accident, he was distracted, even impaired, but he hadn’t been drinking, so no criminal charges were filed. He did get a $300 ticket. If he’d had a glass of beer with his lunch a couple of hours earlier, they’d have thrown the key away. One deputy DA told reporters that without drugs, alcohol, road rage, or speed racing, no jury will convict.
The “Fred Theory”
Here in Oregon, we have improved our traffic safety record regarding alcohol-related traffic fatalities by 25.7 percent over a five-year period from 1997 to 2002, one of the best records in the country. I have a “Fred Theory” here: this may very well be due to the fact that more and more drinkers are switching to craft beer. You can’t just drink too much craft beer without noticing what is happening. I can go to a party, find only industrial yellow, and consume four cans before I even notice I’m drinking. That’s not possible with craft beer. Even one bottle tells you that you are consuming.
Ms. Schuman continued, “(L)awmakers (in New Mexico) approved a measure requiring ignition interlocks, devices that force drivers to pass a breatholyzer test to start a car. They’ll be required in every new vehicle sold in (that) state by 2008. A driver who blows .08 can’t turn over the engine.” She’d like to make that .00 to .02 percent!
That’s a classic in dumb ideas, if only because (as I have done on numerous demonstrations to homebrew groups) drinking even a small 8-ounce glass of fairly weak beer (Michelob Ultra), while stone-cold sober, will bring your breatholyzer reading instantly to 0.2, this even if you weigh 190 pounds, as I do.
That’s right: a reading of 0.2, not 0.02. Your actual Blood Alcohol (BA) will still be around .02, but you won’t be able to start that car, and women will go even higher with that test. What if you need to take your spouse to a hospital now? Zero tolerance is a dumb, dumb, dumb idea.
The effects of alcohol have been carefully studied and are well known although not well publicized. Moreover, the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse and the MADD mothers have deliberately ignored this information.
Years ago (1973), a Canadian study was made on just this subject. The Brewers Association of Canada commissioned a 164-page report, Beer, Wine and Spirits: Beverage Differences and Public Policy in Canada, by the Alcoholic Beverage Study Committee, a blue ribbon panel composed of five college professors, and published in English and French. The commission’s real task appeared to be that of supporting the Canadian brewers association in proving that beer is a safer beverage and therefore should be taxed at a lower rate than wine or spirits. The committee did a great job of delving into some other aspects concerning the influence of various types of alcohol beverages. I found the report to be fascinating, and here are some conclusions they reached. It should be noted here that in 1973, the legal BA limit in Canada was 0.08 percent.
Physiological studies show the differences in the rate that alcohol from beer, wine or spirits is metabolized in the bloodstream and brain, e.g., beer “caused the lowest blood alcohol levels; and wine fell in between…(with beer) 22-25 percent lower than straight whisky [their spelling] or whisky and ginger ale…. (These differences in BA levels are not due to dilution, but to) differences in the beverage constituents other than alcohol.”
The same subjects (all male) were each given measured drinks (three different times, one series each of whisky, wine, and beer) based on body weight, with the BA measured every half hour. The results are “statistically significant” and showed:
a) Average BA in whisky drinkers was above 0.1 percent and stayed there for two hours.
b) Beer drinkers were only slightly above 0.08 percent and stayed there for only one hour.
c) This ingestion level was 0.1 (average whisky) and 0.8 (average beer); 25 percent less.
More important, the studies showed that “the resulting differences in psychomotor performance were large and significant…. The degree of impairment….increases to a greater extent than the increase in (BA) levels.”
Furthermore, the studies on accident risks show the same “exponential relationship, (that is,) impairment and risk increase more than in proportion to the increase in BA level…i.e., the same individual, after 3-4 bottles of beer [Canadian beer, 5 percent ABV, was brewed to American standard in those days], will be less impaired than after 3-4 whiskies although both contain approximately the same amounts of alcohol.”
One more little tidbit here: the lower the ratio of extract content to alcohol content, the lower the BA curve after a given amount of alcohol. In other words, craft beer with its higher ratio of non-fermentables to alcohol content is far more beneficial to the would-be drunk than hard liquor, or even “light” or “ultra” beer, none of which existed in those days. It’s the carbs that make it safer! The effect carries over, even to the long-term health effects as well.