Opinion: Build Back Better, Drive Drunk Less?

by Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, MSPH
Research Director, Alcohol Justice

a man blows into an ignition interlock deviceWill your car take your keys away? Buried in the Biden administration's wide-reaching infrastructure and social safety net bill, a small provision calls upon the National Highway Trafffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to look into methods for cars to automatically curb dangerous driving. It does not specify what technologies will be employed, but does call for "passive monitoring" of driver performance to, presumably, safely cease operation of the car in circumstances where the driver may not be capable of driving. Once a technology or methodology is identified, manufacturers would have 24 months to begin installing it in all cars.

It is an ambitious call for safer roads. But is it the answer to preventing deaths and injuries from drivers who have been drinking?

It very likely would help. Ignition interlock devices, which detect blood alcohol content (BAC) in a driver's breath and prevent the car from starting if a driver has been drinking, are commonly employed DUI prevention devices. But they are almost always only installed when mandated by court order, and even then are often waived because of high cost. Moreover, they require regular recalibration to operate effectively. A passive system would not check for BAC, instead presumably matching driver reactions or behaviors to those displayed by the typical dangerously intoxicated driver. If reliable, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates passive monitoring would save 9,000 lives a year.

The problem is, it may be beatable. Delayed onset of alcohol, learned operation or behavior, or extra concentration by the driver may in fact steer the vehicle accurately until it is, for instance, on the freeway. At that point, suddenly interrupting the operation of the car may be dangerous in and of itself. Moreover, these devices would only be in new cars. The same economic factors that make ignition interlocks unfeasible for many would create a period of a decade or more before onboard incapacitated driving controls are in the majority of the cars most people can afford.

More broadly, to assume that onboard algorithms are, themselves, sufficient or optimal to ensure safe drivers assumes that intoxicated drivers are isolated problems. People who drink dangerously then get behind the wheel are going to specific places to drink. They are drinking products made by specific companies, who benefit economically. And they are driving because it seems like the best way to get to the places where they drink.

Time and time again, Alcohol Justice has gone into hearings in Sacramento and listened to legislators extoll the benefits of selling more alcohol whilie minimizing its consequences. "Alcohol sales are an economic boon, alcohol is fun, any mention that of the harms it cause are just empty moralizing, there's nothing we can do about drunk driving anyway." The automated DUI prevention idea plays into this same bloodless rhetoric--alcohol-involved wrecks are just the individual's fault. If we can fix people, then alcohol will not have any more harms. It plays hand-in-hand with the inadequate or deliberately self-defeating "enjoy responsibly" campaigns favored by Big Alcohol. Which in turn allows them, and their water-carriers in government, to dump any responsibility for alcohol harm on the people harmed.

This is not to say we should reject built-in protections against driving while intoxicated. It is to say we need to get louder still--it is time for Big Alcohol to own up to the deaths and injuries it causes. It is time for legislators to understand that their constituents suffer costs not paid for by bar receipts. It is time to embrace public transit, reject endless cycles of alcohol tax cuts, advance policies that promote intentionality in drinking, and confront alcohol harm as a community. A person in a car watched over by a computer is alone. A person moving through a healthier and more humane world is part of something greater.

Image by VCU Capital News Service. Used under Creative Commons license.


Taking Local Power Back in Santa Barbara

State Street in downtown Santa BarbaraAs the alcohol industry chips away at protective regulations on the state level, cities are left to shore up the breaches on the local level. On Tuesday, September 21, the Santa Barbara city council mortared in place a new set of policies designed to do just that. By an overwhelming vote, the council enacted a "deemed approved ordinance," or DAO, that gives the city the ability to restrict alcohol licenses to stores when there is clear evidence of harming to the community.

The ordinance was pushed by a coalition of local groups concerned with public nuisance in the Milpas area. Along with local residents, student action group Future Leaders of America chimed in to support the new codes, which also target retail practices that promote "impulse buys" of alcohol. Alcohol Justice provided consultation to concerned locals, but the advocacy, testimony, and solution arose completely from within the community.

The plan around increased enforcement included a surprising, and potentially socially significant, caveat. The Future Leaders of America proponents emphasized that they would like to see alcohol enforcement done through the Community Planning Department, not the police. In a city with extraordinarily high levels of wealth inequality, not only would that reduce the burden on the low-income and/or communities of color that suffer inequitably from the costs and consequences of police action, it would center the issue on the businesses who benefit from alcohol sales, not the individuals harmed by alcohol consumption.

The DAO would address numerous quality of life issues in the city, which already has a love-hate relationship with the alcohol industry. As a resort town, hospitality forms a cornerstone of its economy, yet between vacationers and the outsized "party school" reputations of its massively overcrowded local colleges and universities, businesses navigate the constant temptation to promote and profit from dangerous drinking behavior. The ordinance is an attempt to thread that needle, and one that serves as a promising model for other, similarly impacted communities.

"Congratulations to Santa Barbara for making a safe and smart decision," said Michael Scippa, Public Affairs Director of Alcohol Justice. "We hope other towns and cities look at them and see that by working together, we have the power to draw the line."

Image used under Creative Commons license.

2021 Legislative Roundup: COVIDWashing Runs Rampant

As in 2020, the 2021 California legislative session was obsessed with the generationally defining COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike 2020, however, legislative efforts to mitigate its impacts and protect public health were complicated by a new perspective: COVID-19 as an opportunity. The legislative session saw sweeping deregulatory measures in terms of alcohol sales, extending or making permanent "regulatory relief" measures that the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) originally intended as stopgaps to protect businesses during economic downturns. These measures were explicitly cheered on by Governor Newsom, whose own Plumpjack Group--a wine and hospitality consortium which he has placed in blind trust but refused to divest from--stands to benefit.

Yet the news was not all bleak. The Alcohol Justice and CAPA legislative "batting averages" for 2021 are below.
Positions Taken Passed Bills Failed or Held Bills
 AJ Supported 2  4
 AJ Opposed 7  11

Including all bills for which AJ took a position, our batting average was an impressive 0.541. However, that counts bills that were held over for the next legislative session as wins. Those bills may return next year and be signed into law. Including only bills that made it to the Governor's desk, Alcohol Justice went 4 for 12, for a 0.333 batting average.

For reference, the 2021 Major League Baseball leader in batting average was Trea Turner, with 0.328.

Probably the most significant loss was the expanded footprint for nearly every alcohol licensee interested in pursuing it. This resulted in the so-called "parklets" which have already become a flashpoint for noise violations and for being occasionally crashed into by intoxicated drivers. Other notable losses included allowing wineries to open more than one "tasting room," and continuation of the cocktail-to-go policies advanced by ABC as regulatory relief. The latter bill, however, was notably watered down to only allow these cocktails to be picked up in person, blunting app-based delivery companies' efforts to get deeper into the alcohol sales field.

Notable victories included bills that incentivizes the California justice system to provide buprenorphine or other medication-assisted treatment to returning citizens, and a strengthening of ABC's ability to use minor decoys when checking alcohol licensees' legal compliance.

Notably dangerous bills that may return include SB 793, a bill that would grant all music venues a liquor license regardless of the presence of minors. In essence, the requirement to card at the door would be lifted for any venue with a sound system. This policy is a remarkably ill-conceived effort to promote the entertainent industry, and not only greatly facilitates alcohol advertising to youth, but increases the likelihood young concertgoers will be subjected to dangerous or predatory behavior. Alcohol Justice is monitoring this and other two-year bills closely.

Image courtesy Dan Gaken. Used under a Creative Commons license.

New Watchdog Tool Puts Power Back Into the Community

two men lay on the sidewalk barely conscious after a bar fightFor over a year now, California state leaders have been calling for alcohol deregulation, framing it as an emergency measure to keep bars and restaurants afloat. Now, as the state slowly claws its way out of the pandemic-induced chaos, legislators are trying to make these "emergency" measures permanent. These "regulatory relief" policies--including app-based delivery of cocktails, service area pushed out into public space, and vastly expanded bar footprints--have one intention: to increase the amount of alcohol consumed in California.

This is a reckless and craven appeal to Big Alcohol lobbyists, and utterly unconcerned with the harms that befall the public. But the community has always had a way to talk back, by registering complaints about alcohol bars, restaurants, and stores to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). However, many residents are not aware they have this power and right. To help directly connect our neighbors to ABC, Alcohol Justice has created the ABC Online Complaint Portal. This portal allows anyone to submit a complaint directly to ABC.

In addition, we have compiled a Field Guide to Regulatory Relief. Designed to work hand-in-hand with the complaint portal, the Field Guide lets residents know their experiences are not just pet peeves--they are real violations of the obligations alcohol-selling businesses have to be good neighbors.

We know what harms arise from uncontrolled alcohol sales. As alcohol taxes and regulations are slashed across the country, we are experiencing a spike in every indicator of alcohol overuse. Fatal liver disease has been on the rise for 20 years; alcohol use disorder for 30. California has seen steady increases in fatal DUIs, and reviews of death certificates find a 50% increase in the rate of alcohol-related deaths since 1999. Alcohol-related mortality is the major cause of preventable deaths among adolescents, being a deciding factor in motor vehicle crashes, homicides, and suicides.

Yet, as a California resident, you do not need to have witnessed death to have a right to complain about a venue. Noise, litter, violence or threatening behavior from patrons, reckless outdoor alcohol advertising, disregard for laws regarding sales to minors or minors on the premises--these are all good reasons to file a complaint using our portal. Complaints can be anonymous, or you can leave your name if you would like ABC to follow up with you.

This is not even a matter of taking the power back. The power has always been yours. Despite what many in the legislature would have us believe, selling alcohol is a privilege, not a right. Those who embrace it have an obligation to look after their patrons and communities, not just their bottom lines.