In an April 1 post, “In search of a statistic,” I noted that, in response to columnist Noreen O’Donnell’s citing of a statistic provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, we received the following from Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a self-described “association of restaurants and on-premise retailers committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages”:
“To the Editor:
One of Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s favorite talking points (“those convicted of drunken driving had driven drunk more than 87 times before their first arrest.”) goes so far as to accuse Americans of criminal acts with no proof to back up the claim (“Keeping drunken drivers off the road – what do the experts say?,” March 11).
The truth is that the widely-publicized figure is based on rough estimates from self-reported data—commonly criticized as being unreliable—collected from a small sample 14 years ago. Even the study’s own authors admit the estimates are “crude.” Yet, MADD has dubbed it “fact.”
Before advocating for new laws, we need an accurate, up-to-date measure of drunk driving behavior. It’s reckless to act based on one thing, when the reality is another.”
I noted that, based on a Google search, this group apparently sends the identical letter to any newspaper that prints the MADD statistic (only changing the name of the responded-to article in parentheses), so it wasn’t a surprise when this morning I got this letter again – this time in response to our Sunday editorial, “DWI’s pain,” about the recent incident involving Diane Schuler who, according to toxicology reports, had the equivalent of 10 drinks in her system, as well as marijuana, when she drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and caused a crash that killed eight people, four of them children. But I found myself taken aback, anyway. The merits of the study in question are certainly worth examining, as I pointed out in my earlier post. But does the American Beverage Institute ever read the articles, editorials, etc. that it responds to before sending out its form-letter denunciation of one DWI study? Westchester residents remain shocked, saddened and downright angry more than two weeks after this incident, judging by the letters and online comments we’ve received, not to mention the rash of recent DWI-caused fatalities in our area. ABI doesn’t take any of that into context in its single-minded determination to debunk one statistic from MADD – and to fall back on the old “more study is needed” argument, one supposes, in order to hinder efforts intended to better prevent DWI (so much for the “responsible serving of adult beverages”). Certainly, alcoholic-beverage-sellers have a right to state their case, but ABI’s method comes off as callous and uncaring in the face of an especially horrific DWI occurrence.
UPDATE: This morning I received a response to this post from ABI’s Sarah Longwell (including a PDF file of the original study from which the “87 times” figure is derived: 87-times-study-zador-2000 ):
For the record, we at ABI do read every article, editorial, letter to the editor, etc. We too have been following the response to the tragic Taconic Parkway crash. In doing so, we saw MADD’s press release <http://sev.prnewswire.com/transportation-trucking-railroad/20090805/DA5749905082009-1.html> which exploited the tragedy to call for two things: ignition interlocks for all convicted DUI offenders regardless of BAC level and alcohol-sensors in all cars. Then, we saw your editorial which took the bait. The editorial repeats the 87 times statistic as though it were incontrovertible.
As your editorial discussed, the drunk driving problem has been greatly reduced since MADD was created and in 2008, alcohol-impaired fatalities were at their lowest levels in decades. MADD knows this, but still wants to garner support for extreme policies (like alcohol-sensors in all cars). So they use scare tactics like the bogus 87 times statistic to scare the public into believing that alcohol sensors in all cars are a good idea. Yes, whenever we see the statistic in print, we challenge it. That’s a pretty logical response, wouldn’t you say?
ABI has no interest in hindering “efforts intended to better prevent DWI”. We simply disagree with MADD on the way to end the drunk driving problem. We advocate for targeting the hard-core offenders who cause the vast majority of fatalities, while MADD is focused on punishing those who may have enjoyed one drink prior to driving (hence, the campaign for alcohol-sensors in all cars).
I do apologize for sending the same letter twice, but you used the same bad statistic twice.