On a May night in 2005, Debra Bolton, a lawyer and single mom from the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, was leaving the Café Milano in Georgetown after socializing with some friends. She had driven her SUV only a few hundred yards before she was pulled over by D.C. police for driving with the headlights off. She told the officer the parking attendant at Café Milano probably had turned off her vehicle's automatic light feature.
Not mollified, the officer asked Bolton to step out of the car, walk in a straight line, recite the alphabet, stand on one foot, and count to 30. He checked her eyes for suspicious jerkiness and insisted on a breath test for alcohol.
The breath test revealed that Bolton's blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.03 percent, a level a 120-pound woman could expect after drinking one glass of wine. It was well below the 0.08 percent limit that marks a driver as legally intoxicated in D.C. It was not low enough for the arresting officer, however. This middle-aged mother of two, who hadn't drunk to excess, who hadn't run a red light or run a stop, was arrested, handcuffed, and fingerprinted for an innocent mistake. She sat in a jail cell for hours and was finally released at 4:30 a.m. Bolton spent four court appearances and over $2,000 fighting a $400 ticket. She then spent a month fighting to get her license back after refusing to submit to the 12-week alcohol counseling program.
The arresting officer, inaptly named Dennis Fair, insists: "If you get behind the wheel of a car with any measurable amount of alcohol, you will be dealt with in D.C. We have zero tolerance....Anything above 0.01, we can arrest." Fair recognized that nearly everyone in D.C. was unaware of this zero tolerance policy. Still, he told The Washington Post, if "you don't know about it, then you're a victim of your own ignorance."
Bolton's arrest was not the result of a single cop's overzealousness. In 2004 D.C. police arrested 321 people with BACs below the legal limit of 0.08 percent for driving under the influence. The year before, the number was 409.
After the Bolton incident, James Klaunig, a toxicology expert at the Indiana University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post, "There's no way possible she failed a [sobriety] test from impairment with a .03 blood alcohol level." Fair had claimed that Bolton swayed and lost her balance when taking the sobriety test, triggering the breath test.
A BAC test, one of the main tools used by law enforcement to catch drunk drivers, determines how much alcohol is present in the bloodstream. A BAC of 0.08 percent, for instance, means 0.0008 of your blood is alcohol. At that level, though, you're hardly slurring your words or staggering.
In 2000 President Clinton signed a federal law aimed at pressuring states to lower their BAC limits from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent. States that didn't go along were threatened with the loss of federal highway funds. Karolyn Nunnallee, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), predicted that a nationwide 0.08 percent standard "will save nearly 600 lives every year."
It hasn't worked out that way. In the July 2007 issue of Contemporary Economic Policy, Sam Houston State University economist Donald Freeman examines the most recent data available and concludes "there's no evidence that lowering the BAC limits...reduced fatality rates, either in total or in crashes likely to be alcohol related." This is true, he found, both in states that adopted a 0.08 percent BAC standard on their own and in states that did so under federal pressure.
During the last decade, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), alcohol contributed to between 16,000 and 17,000 traffic-related fatalities a year, about two-fifths of the total such deaths. It used to be a good deal worse. Back in 1982, three-fifths of all traffic related fatalities were attributed to alcohol. Since then, ad campaigns and education have raised public awareness about the dangers of driving smashed. States have instituted stricter punishment for drunk driving, and law enforcement officials are also better prepared to ferret out drunk drivers. A lot of the credit must be given to the hard work MADD did in educating the public about the menace of drinking and driving.
But the decline in alcohol-related deaths persisted only until 1997. Since then the vehicular death toll attributed to alcohol has remained stable at around 40 percent. This stagnation in drunk driving deaths has caused considerable consternation among activists and law enforcement officials. Lately, the fight against drunk driving has shifted from serious alcohol abusers with no regard for the law toward responsible drinkers.
Neoprohibitionists aim to muddle the distinction between drunk diving and driving after drinking any amount of alcohol. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) endorsed the idea at a Senate Environment and Public Committee hearing way back in 1997, contending that we "may wind up in this country going to zero tolerance, period." Former MADD President Katherine Prescott concurred, in a letter to the Chicago Tribune, where she stated "there is no safe blood alcohol, and for that reason responsible drinking means no drinking and driving."
Technically she's correct. Driving is never completely safe, and many things drivers commonly do-including speaking on a cell phone, talking to passengers, applying lipstick, eating a sandwich, drinking coffee, adjusting the radio, reprimanding the kids in the back seat, and daydreaming about weekend plans-can make it riskier. As states and cities have begun focusing on zero tolerance (or "driving while distracted" laws, which target the diversions laid out above) they are losing focus on the real threat, namely habitually drunk drivers.
Drinking is under attack these days in ways we haven't seen since the failed experiment with national alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Indeed, for many neoprohibitionists, that experiment wasn't a failure at all, since it did cut alcohol consumption, which is all that matters. We can see that mentality today in policies that go beyond preventing drunk driving or punishing drunk drivers and aim to discourage drinking per se.
Although alcohol nannies generally support zero tolerance, one dissenting voice doesn't. "I thought the emphasis on .08 laws was not where the emphasis should have been placed," Candace Lightner told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. "The majority of crashes occur with high blood-alcohol levels, the .15, .18 and .25 drinkers. Lowering the blood-alcohol concentration was not a solution to the alcohol problem."