Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
The Rise of the Mommy State

By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, April 7, 1998 --  

After keeping up with the news this week, I needed a drink.

In the past ten days, the White House and Congress advanced three measures to meddle in the private lives of Americans. First came a Senate vote to increase tobacco taxes for the good of our health. Not content with this advancement of the nanny state, Senators voted to reduce the legal intoxication level to 0.08 percent blood alcohol content. Clinton was not to be outdone. The White House kicked off an effort to empower police to pull drivers over for failing to wear their safety belts.

Pardon me if my memory is failing me, but exactly when did the U.S. Government decide to take on the job of being my mother?

Voices of reason were nowhere to be seen. Most Republican reformers spent the week howling about the evils of pork-barrel spending in the transportation bill. Amazingly absent from this dialogue was outrage about the Senate version's anti-alcohol measure. Three years after sweeping Democrats from office on a platform of decentralization, Republicans are supporting the same old Democratic tricks -- threatening to withhold federal funds if the states don't lower their drunk driving definition.

Most states don't want to go along, and its not hard to understand why. If you can suffer through the incessantly emotional anecdotes of the anti-alcohol lobby, you will find that there is no rational basis behind the proposal to lower the legal limit. While excessive alcohol consumption can indeed increase the risk of traffic fatalities, the point at which the risk begins to take off is well beyond 0.08 -- at 0.14 or more.1

The increased risk from 0.08 to 0.10, while measurable, is not significant enough to make the difference between a law abiding citizen and a detestable criminal. A huge number of factors come into play to determine the risks a driver takes when he gets behind the wheel. Fatigue, preoccupation and auto maintenance are all factors that can far exceed moderate amounts of alcohol consumption in adding to a driver's risk. Yet all these factors rightfully are considered to be subject to the discretion of the driver. Alcohol consumption -- at moderate levels -- should be no different.

Lowering the blood alcohol level to 0.08 destroys the legitimacy of the law. Four beers in an hour may indeed slow a person's reaction time. But do they turn him into a drunk? Hardly. When responsible social drinkers begin to view the law with contempt, a good measure of its deterrent power will be lost.

Despite all the evidence damning the case of anti-alcohol activists, despite the proposal's clear conflict with the Republican platform, pundits still predict that the measure will become law. Why? The only possible answer is that after being branded pro-tobacco, the Republicans are terrified of the election year consequences of supporting the alcohol industry.

In the late 1990s, pro-family and pro-safety make for good politics. Baby Boomer voters are at an age where they are struggling to reduce the safety risks facing their teenage children -- while simultaneously enjoying the pinnacle of their political power. Mommy, in essence, is the largest voting block in the electorate. And Mommy, as we all know, triumphs over reason when she thinks the safety of her children is at stake.

Until the teenagers in the Baby Boomlet pass on to early adulthood, it is likely that we will see much more ill-conceived safety legislation. In the meantime, there is only one thing that a logical-minded observer can do: sit back, have a drink, and wait it out. Just stay away from your car when you do.

1. American Beverage Institute. 1995 Statistics from NHTSA/FARS