Thursday, March 23, 2006

Under Age Drinking in America

The Charlotte Observer had an article on the Editorial pages this past Sunday, March 19, 2006 concerning Drunk Driving. Ed Williams wrote it. You can find it here.

This is my response.

A friend in my youth was a talented auto mechanic. When referring to certain vehicles he would say; “Never force anything, just get a bigger hammer.” I submit that you cannot solve the alcohol consumption problems in this country with a bigger hammer. According to the NC State Highway Patrol’s website the 1455 Troopers in North Carolina arrested 26,005 people for DUI in 2004. The US Census bureau put the state’s population in 2004 at just over 8.5 million people. That works out to three tenths of a percent of us getting DUI citations in 2004. I submit that if you doubled the number of Troopers, highly unlikely, our chances of being caught in a violation of any traffic law remains very small. Efficient use of their time requires the Troopers to concentrate on the worst, or most obvious violators and just let the rest keep driving. What we should be doing is to model responsible drinking habits for our children.

I took a minute to find one of those charts that tell you how many drinks over what time period it takes to achieve a certain blood alcohol level. The Minnesota Department of Public Health was kind enough to provide one here. I weigh 200 lbs. According to this chart if I drink 4 beers in an hour, after giving me credit for the alcohol metabolized over that hour, my blood alcohol level should be .055. Two more beers over the next hour and I hit .08. I can’t drink 6 beers in two hours. Sometime after starting the 4th beer and it is time to go home and go to sleep. If I go a little slower, say 2 beers an hour, and eat a burger in there somewhere, I might finish the 4th one about the time the game ends. The point here is that it takes some real effort to get significantly above .08. These people who are driving the wrong way on interstates are reputed to be 2 - 3 times the legal limit. A 160 pound man would have to drink 8 beers in 2 hours to reach a blood alcohol level of .16, or twice the legal limit. Drinking at this level is excessive even if you are walking home. There is no hint of responsible behavior in this activity.

The United States has the highest legal drinking age in the world. What has this done for us. Children here are taught to associate alcohol with adulthood. There is nothing more fascinating to a 16 year old than a 21 year old. For our society to associate that fascination with alcohol is just plain stupid. Underage drinking occurs in private. It is, after all, illegal. This means at the party house where no adults are home, at the local outdoor hangout, or in someone’s car. Where, at any of these places, are you going to find models for responsible drinking. Funnels and chugging contests are more likely. The real truth is that they drink more because they are under age and out of sight. Much of this country is run by puritans who are terrified that someone, somewhere may be having a good time. They understand that on safety issues the most extreme position wins. They are in charge so they give us this; ‘He is in college, he’s 21, he can drink, cool.’ That is what we are telling our 16 year olds. Until you can find a way to make drinking alcohol an ordinary activity and demonstrate responsible drinking you might as well try the hire more cops idea. The bigger hammer will not work, but those wielding it will feel better.


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