A study reported in the November American Journal of Public Health finds that the repeal of New Mexico's ban on Sunday sales of packaged alcoholic beverages was associated with an increase in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Looking at crashes involving alcohol from noon on Sunday until noon on Monday, the researchers estimated there were 543 more, including 42 fatalties, during the five years after the ban was lifted in July 1995 than would have been expected based on data for the five years before. According to the press release, "Today's study finds that the Sunday ban saved lives and prevented hundreds of injuries and fatalities from alcohol-related crashes." According to the abstract, "Repealing the ban on Sunday packaged alcohol sales introduced a public health and safety hazard in New Mexico." As usual, the text of the report itself is more tentative, concluding, "Our results strongly suggest that increasing alcohol availability on Sunday was associated with increases in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and fatalities."
There are several reasons to be cautious in drawing conclusions from this study. Sunday was not the only day of the week on which crashes went up, although it was the only day on which the increase was (just barely) statistically significant. There was no comparison to accident trends in other states that did not legalize Sunday sales during the study period. It also would be interesting to know whether other states that have made this change (such as Delaware, Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Virginia) have seen increases in alcohol-related crashes on Sunday.
Finally, the researchers' methods for identifying alcohol-related crashes are questionable. For nonfatal crashes, they relied on police officers' hunches, which may not be accurate (although, as the authors note, there's no obvious reason why police errors would have a disproportionate impact on crash numbers for a particular day of the week). For fatal crashes, the researchers deemed an accident alcohol-related "if the blood alcohol concentration of any involved driver was greater than 0.0%." The problem with this measure (which is also used by the federal government) is that a low level of alcohol in the blood of one driver, who may not even have been at fault in the accident, may have had nothing to do with the crash. It's possible that Sunday liquor sales increased the proportion of drivers who had detectable BACs without increasing the number of fatalities caused by driving while intoxicated.
Still, it's not hard to imagine how heavy drinkers' impulse purchases of beer or whiskey could lead to more accidents on Sundays than would otherwise occur. The researchers see this phenomenon (assuming it occurs) as ample justification for keeping Sunday sales bans that were originally justified on religious grounds. Is it? Anything that makes alcohol harder to obtain might have an impact on accident rates. Does that possibility justify the imposition on the vast majority of drinkers who are not driving while intoxicated and getting into crashes but who might like to purchase a sixpack or a bottle of wine on a Sunday? Is it fair to restrict their freedom because of other people's recklessness?
You can guess my answer by the way I frame the question. But even in strictly utilitarian terms, it's not clear the tradeoff is justified. Accepting this study's numbers at face value, we're talking about eight or so additional fatalities a year (some of them the drunk drivers themselves). How does that stack up against the extra utility—greater convenience, less annoyance, more alcohol-related pleasure—of all the New Mexicans who can now buy beer, wine, and liquor on Sundays? I'm not sure how you'd make that calculation, but I know the "public health" specialists who produce studies like this one would not even think of trying.
[Thanks to Charles Oliver for the tip.]