Should People Die So You Can Buy Beer on Sunday?

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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.]

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  1. I’ll drink to that.

  2. There’s a Sunday dry law in northern GA, though it looks like here the only effect it’s had is to ramp up liquor sales & stockpiling of liquor on friday & saturday.

  3. So alcohol related traffic accidents went up a little.

    Did NON-alcohol related traffic accidents GO DOWN?

    If total traffic accidents are considered rather than alcohol-related only, is the increase no longer statistically significant?

    But yeah, we might have a safer world if we were all enslaved, but would we wanna live in it?

  4. Of course there were never any alcohol related deaths during Prohibiton. LOL.

  5. Great, I can read the article for $10, even though I have access to all published articles from that journal. What a crock.

  6. “””But yeah, we might have a safer world if we were all enslaved, but would we wanna live in it?”””

    Anti-freedom rules!!!!

  7. “””But yeah, we might have a safer world if we were all enslaved, but would we wanna live in it?”””

    Anti-freedom rules!!!!

  8. A Mexican town I visited recently imposed ley seca (dry laws banning retail booze sales) during the annual running of the bulls. To beat the ban, most of the visitors simply brought their own stuff and hid it in water bottles.

    My point being, liquor bans don’t work – at least not here.

  9. Should People Die So You Can Buy Beer on Sunday?

    If necessary. Hell, I’ll kill’em myself if I have to.

  10. Good luck convincing people that all the plesure of all the drinkers in the world should be put up against the life of even one innocent person, nevermind if its a kid.

    What little freedom we have is mostly just tradition created by good luck. Logic and analysis rarely creates or maintains freedom.

  11. I used to live in Delaware, and most everone would drive to Maryland to drink or get alcohol on Sundays. This trek is something we first-staters never would’ve had to do, had the liquor stores/bars been open on Sundays. So, I venture that is at least possible that traffic fatalities might be lower after they rescinded that ban (which was after I relocated out of DE, goddammit). Of course, Delaware is a tiny state, which made it pretty easy to go to MD to get our drink on, so this hypothesis of mine certainly doesn’t apply to, say, Pennsylvania.

  12. Forget reinstating the blue laws — that still leaves six days of the week where innocent lives are being lost for the convenience of drinkers. If we reinstate Prohibition, we’ll save seven times as many lives!

  13. I haven’t had a chance to read it in detail, but I would observe the following:

    1) The authors seem to know their statistics. This isn’t a case of people getting a correlation and running with it. They lay out their statistical reasoning and assumptions, and clearly understand statistics. Now, they may be wrong on some details that I haven’t analyzed (quite possible) but they aren’t amateurs either. It’s common to assume that social scientists don’t know squat about statistics, but these people seem knowledgeable enough. Yes, even the most knowledgeable people need to have their work checked (you should see some mistakes from an early draft of one of my papers), I’m just saying that these guys aren’t the buffoons that some people assume social scientists to be.

    2) Given that their statistical knowledge is up to snuff, the data set nonetheless suffers from the weaknesses that Jacob mentions.

    3) The writers acknowledge these weaknesses quite openly, rather than relegating it to a footnote. They do state conclusions, but they also state their limitations.

    My conclusions?

    This is a decent enough piece of science, a study that merits further consideration and follow-up studies. This is not to say that the results of this study should be translated into public policy, just that as a scientist I don’t find the study particularly objectionable. I can acknowledge the possibility that a bad thing is happening, and acknowledge that researchers have done the best job possible with the data at hand, even while preferring not to rush into a policy response.

    And Jacob analyzed the research quite well. Let’s face it, Jacob is a darn good science writer.

  14. I bet alcohol related accidents would go down if we banned acohol sales on Saturday too. And Friday, and Thursday…and we may as well ban it the rest of the week too. Think of the children.

    Legally banning or restricting anything on Sunday really pisses me off. I have always thought it was a clear violation of the first amendment. Unfortunately the SCOTUS doesn’t give a damn about the constitution.

  15. Screw the dead. What have they done for us lately?

  16. I’m not buying. When I used to hang out at The River in Arizona you couldn’t buy booze before noon on Sunday and NOBODY was going to run out of beer before noon on Sunday so we stocked up on it to make sure we didn’t run out. I can’t imagine any hop head spending a dry Sunday when he could easily stock up on Saturday.

    Besides that, Saturday is the Sabbath.

  17. Thoreau’s points are well taken. I work with crash data, and while I have not read the whole report, I would say:

    For nonfatal crashes, they relied on police officers’ hunches, which may not be accurate
    For non-fatal crashes, officer reports are the only data source available, and they tend to be pretty reliable. If anything, the direction of bias is down (fewer alcohol reports). The other possible data source would be blood/breath tests, but those are never taken as often as necessary or even as legally required, so officer reports are the most reliable thing we have.

    As a statistical matter, as long as any present bias or error rate did not change over the study period, it should not affect the results. Random errors are already assumed in statistical design and significance testing. If there is an observer bias, as long as it is the same before and after the law repeal, we should still be able to see the change (think of a watch that is always 5 minutes fast). There is one case where it would be a problem: if we had an increasing number of crashes and if officers over-estimate alcohol involvement, then we would see a somewhat exaggerated increase in the number of reported alcohol-involved crashes (but not the percentage of them). Since the expected bias would be underreporting, however, I am not too worried about it.

    dan, I believe that is a point in the study: you could still drive to a bar to get a drink, just not to a store. Some suggested that a repeal would lead to less drunk driving because of more drinking at home. That claim, at least, seems to have no support based on the results.

  18. Good luck convincing people that all the plesure of all the drinkers in the world should be put up against the life of even one innocent person, nevermind if its a kid.

    Anyone remember that old Bloom County where Opus is in a debate and says that studies show lowering the speed limit from 65 to 55 will save 20,000 people a year, so they should do it?

    His opponent asks him if he supports lowering it to 45 to save another 20,000 people, which he uncertainly agrees to. Then the opponent suggests 35, at which point Opus says, “Well, that’s awfully slow…” At which point, of course, the opponent leaps on Opus for being willing to sacrifice 20,000 peoples’ lives so that he can drive faster than 35.

  19. As a statistical matter, as long as any present bias or error rate did not change over the study period

    How about if cops don’t like the ban having been lifted?

    thoreau, how about my objection? Shouldn’t the overall number of traffic deaths be more relevant? Seems to me that the losers who crashed while fugged up could have easily crashed while sober (or on something else) if the liquor stores had been closed.

  20. saw an ad for a massachusetts ballot initiative the other day with a similar tactic. currently mass. grocery stores and 7-11 type stores can’t sell wine. note that we aren’t even talking about beer, just wine. the ad said that if the initiative was passed, some huge number of additional people would die each year.

    anyone want to guess who paid for the ad? public-safety nanny-state types? no. it was the liquour store lobby.

    -cab

  21. This, of course, this raises an even bigger questions: should people die so I can drive a car? If we eliminated cars altogether, think of how much we’d reduce traffic fatalities.


  22. Should People Die So You Can Buy Beer on Sunday?”

    YES!

    Fuck you, American Journal of Public Health and your idiotic attempts to guilt the nation into NuProhibition.

  23. I wonder what has happened demographically in New Mexico between 1995 and now. This is based entirely on personal observation from my time living in New Mexico, but it seemed to me that Mexican immigrants for whatever reason had their main party night on Sunday night. Maybe the growth of immigrant drunks outpaced the growth of non-immigrant drunks resulting in a statistically higher level of alcohol related accidents on Sunday. (based on personal observation in Clovis, New Mexico from 1993-1997)

  24. The CAFE standards exerted pressure on car manufacturers over the entire time period to make cars that got better gas mileage. If that meant lighter cars that withstood less in terms of impacts, that could account for the same result found by these researchers, without any impact from the booze.

    If they didn’t look at other states, and their results were “slightly significant,” then this could easily be the reason. “Statistically significant” for the American Journal of Public Health is still a 1-in-20 chance of a spurious conclusion (p =< 0.05 for all y’all in the know).

  25. Statistics. Blah blah blah.

    Speaking as someone who was borned and raised in that there New Mexico, and grew up during a time when the drinkin’ age was lower in Tejas than NM, (coupled with Sunday sales bans) I can say that a lot of driving was done by me and my ilk to get our swerve on when it couldn’t be got in NM (due to the aforementioned legal hurdles).

    Let me put it this way, distances were far and two lane, poorly lit highways were the order of the day. Southern New Mexico: think David Lynch movie, except with creepier characters.

    I have not read the study (as thoreau dutifully did) and so I will back out of raising a glass to the statistical accuracy. But I will say that from a standpoint of pure hootin’-hollerin’ native New Mexican intuition, it seems very possible that they’re on to something.

    (the Real) Paul that you know and love.

    Oh, and I agree with everything ‘poser’ Paul said above.

  26. Hell, I live in New Mexico now and I can’t friggin’ stand the ban on booze sales before noon which remains in effec. If they went back to no booze on Sundays at all I just don’t know what I would do.

  27. I’m with Sullum in wondering if the same change was found in other states that rescinded sunday alcohol laws. This could be something related to New Mexico culture. Didn’t New Mexico also allow for open bottles in a vehicle during this time? Do they allow for drive-thru windows at liquor stores. It could be a that a couple other factors play into this.

  28. Here in AZ, you can’t buy alcohol before 10AM on Sundays.

    They also recently allow alcohol sales until 2AM. I’d love to see the statistics on how drunk driving arrests and accidents have changed since (if at all). Anecdotally, I see people actually stopping thier drinking a few minutes before closing time and actually having a glass or two of water. When it was still 1AM, people were pounding shots and beers right up until they got kicked out.

  29. Do they allow for drive-thru windows at liquor stores

    .. we did but they were banned a few years ago under the “they cause drunk driving” argument .. a recent study showed zero influence on drunk driving rates .. what do you think the chances of getting the driveups back is?? .. my guess is zero ..

    .. Hobbit

  30. .. chances .. are..

    .. sorry

    .. Hobbit

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