by Tim O'Brien
In his final radio address of 1998 President Clinton called for new federal regulations requiring all fifty state governments to adopt a .08% blood-alcohol standard for drunk driving.
Since the Tenth Amendment reserves jurisdiction in such matters to the individual states, the federal government itself cannot unilaterally impose the standard. However, the feds have found a nifty way around this constitutional inconvenience. They simply threaten to withhold federal highway funds from any state that doesn't go along.
The potential of this little ploy was first realized in 1974 when in the throes of the putative "energy crisis" the U.S. Department of Transportation demanded that all states lower their freeway speed limit to 55 mph... or lose their federal highway money. One western state held out for awhile, but in the end all caved and complied.
As with any extortion racket, capitulation inevitably brings new demands as often as the extortionist finds it in his interest or pleasure to make them. The "double nickel" was quickly followed by requirements to test auto emissions, raise the legal drinking age, mandate seatbelt use, register motor voters, etc., all backed up by the threat to not return federal gas tax money to any state that balked.
The irony in all of this is that in defeating the "laboratories of democracy" concept upon which our republic was founded -- whereby as many as fifty different approaches to any problem may be tried -- we can easily end up with a bad solution universally imposed with no opportunity to measure its effectiveness against any other approaches.
Like, for instance, lowering the blood-alcohol standard for drunk driving to .08%.
In the first place it is well known that the most intractable part of the drunk driving problem is caused by individuals who at the time of arrest register far beyond even Michigan's current .10% standard -- often at twice this level, sometimes more.
By way of comparison a woman of average body weight and metabolism can reach the .08% level after having two glasses of wine over a two hour dinner.
Far from deterring drunk driving and raising awareness about the problem generally, this wholly unrealistic standard will more likely breed contempt for and disregard of the law by millions of average, otherwise law-abiding people.
These facts have already been widely recognized. Just last year 23 states (including Michigan) considered lowering the legal drunk driving threshold precisely as President Clinton has threatened to mandate. After studying the proposal, all but one (not Michigan) decided against it.
Now, arbitrary standards by definition cannot accurately reflect the real risk associated with different levels of alcohol consumption by different individuals. Inevitably, some will be unsafe drivers at blood-alcohol levels even below .08% while others will be perfectly competent at levels even above .10%.
This is precisely because the potential impact on driving ability can only be approximately inferred from blood-alcohol level and extrapolated to the population as a whole. Actual, individual, driving performance is never measured.
A far more effective solution to the problem would be to skip the indirect method of alcohol measurement entirely and instead directly test coordination, reaction time, and so forth.
If the goal is to remove unsafe drivers, wouldn't it make more sense to test driving ability?
In fact a device that does precisely this is already in use by doctors in evaluating whether certain recovering patients are able to safely get behind the wheel.
Called the Proto-Clinic Glare Evaluation System it is a simulator that tests vision including color, glare coping ability and depth perception. A gas and brake pedal also measure coordination and reaction time.
A less elaborate, more portable version of this device could easily evaluate any individual's driving competence in any situation in which a police officer has doubts.
Though more effective, since it measures ability or lack thereof regardless of cause -- whether alcohol or other drugs, illness, fatigue or simple incompetence -- such an approach would undoubtedly encounter monumental political problems.
Removing the relevance of the cause of impairment will deprive the morally self-righteous of their opportunity to "Tsk, Tsk" other people's lifestyles.
Furthermore, it would likely result in the revoking of driving privileges for a large number of senior citizens who, though frequently a menace to navigation, are nearly all registered voters.
As for President Clinton's threat to not return our federal gas tax money to us, the obvious answer to this is for Governor Engler to cite the Tenth Amendment ("The powers not delegated to the United States by the constitution...are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.") and simply impound the federal gas tax revenue before it ever leaves Michigan.
Such a move would solve our road funding problems while simultaneously putting the feds back in their place.
And as an added bonus it would also give all of the pundits who mischaracterized the recent House vote to impeach the president as a "constitutional crisis," the genuine article to talk about.
Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.