Friday, 13 August 2010

The True North strong and alcohol-free

Canadians love their beer. Indeed, they take great pride in the fact that Canadian beer is, on average, stronger than American beer. But it would seem that the march of the Righteous is at least as far advanced in Ontario as it is in the UK. Holidaying here, I came across two tough policies aimed at tackling drink driving.

The first concerns young and newly-qualified drivers:
Young drivers and new motorists of all ages in Ontario will not be allowed to have any alcohol in their blood whatsoever under new rules that take effect Aug. 1.

Under legislation passed in 2009, Ontario drivers 21 and under will be required to have a zero blood alcohol count, regardless of what kind of licence they have.
The legal drinking age in Ontario is 19. If zero BAC makes sense for under-21s, why not under-22s? Why not under-25s or under-30s? Why not everyone?

Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne justified the zero BAC rule with the tired old appeal to 'think of the children':
It is unfortunately young people who are often most at risk if we talk about drinking and driving ... That’s the stuff that keeps us up at nights, so we want to make sure we put in place rules that are going to keep our kids safe.
But it is already illegal for "kids" aged 16 and 17 to drink, whether driving or not. How old do you have to be in Ontario before you can be treated as an adult, with responsibility for your own safety? The nanny statists would have childhood last forever.

Wynne continued,
We know that 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds as a group are seriously at risk for being in fatal collisions because of drinking and driving, so the rules need to reflect that.
Suppose we were to find that male drivers "as a group" are "seriously at risk for being in fatal collisions because of drinking and driving". Would it be reasonable to require men, as a group, to forsake alcohol altogether when driving?

Note that a zero limit for under 21s may succeed in reducing "alcohol-related" road deaths without having any impact whatsoever on road deaths. We may find that under-21s are capable of driving negligently, recklessly, and dangerously, without the help of alcohol. It is bad driving that kills, not alcohol per se.

Meanwhile, young people who drive responsibly, despite having a non-zero BAC, will be unfairly persecuted. No longer will they be able to have a beer with lunch, and drive away legally. This is a severe imposition in suburban and rural areas, where everyone drives everywhere, especially in winter.

Do people, young or otherwise, really need a beer with lunch? No. But that is not the point — many people enjoy a lunchtime beverage, perfectly responsibly. Puritans can't stand this sort of thing.

Like it or not, people will drink. Suppose we accept, for the sake of argument, what the aptly-named MADD would have us believe: that BAC is the most important factor in driving ability, and that a BAC of 0.049 causes significant impairment. Now suppose a 22-year-old goes out on a date with a 20-year-old. When they're ready to leave, they take out their pocket breathalyser, and find that the 22-year-old has a BAC of 0.049, while the 20-year-old has a BAC of 0.01. Does it really make sense for the dangerously impaired 22-year-old to take the keys?

The figure of 0.049 was carefully chosen, because the Ministry of Transportation would have us believe that
With a BAC of 0.05, an individual’s vision may already be affected in terms of sensitivity to brightness, the ability to determine colours, and depth and motion perception. The brain’s ability to perform simple motor functions is diminished. This means that a driver’s reaction time will be slower and responses will be less accurate. The result is degraded driving performance and a significant increase in collision risk.
Accordingly, they have introduced another measure, which affects all drivers:
As of May 1, 2009, if you’re caught driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) from 0.05 to 0.08 (known as the "warn range"), the police can immediately suspend your licence up to three days for a first occurrence, seven days for a second occurrence and 30 days for a third or subsequent occurrence.
One hopes that the police will show a little restraint in exercising these immediate suspension powers, but wouldn't it be better to have reasonable laws that people respect.

Even if the two measures described above succeed in reducing road deaths, we must ask "at what cost?". If we could eliminate all road deaths by rigorously enforcing a 10 mph speed limit on all roads, would it be worth it?

I'm reminded of a classic article by Lewis Page for The Register, which ran with the subtitle "Live slow, die old, leave a wrinkly corpse":

Obviously, less people killed and torn up would be good. But, in fact, things are a lot safer on the roads than they used to be, with annual UK deaths down by better than half since the 1960s. At some point, when you insist on ultimate levels of safety, you start to pay more and more for each life saved: perhaps not just in money either. Overly ambitious safety goals can strangle entire new technologies, choke economies, and - in the case of vehicle tracking - actually take away your freedom if you aren't careful.

Is it better to be rich, free, and at some risk of getting killed by an idiot crashlanding his nuclear-powered flying car; or poor, downtrodden, spied upon - but sure of living long enough to die luxuriously of cancer or Alzheimer's?

We're all dead in the long run. Let's try to have a bit of fun along the way.

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