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Coors DWI: A Different Take

Pete Coors, family scion of Coors Brewing Co. (now Molson Coors) was famously arrested on a drunk driving charge in late May for which his license has now been revoked. I’m sure much will be made of this by the neo-prohibitionist movement, especially since Pete had personally overseen Coors’ “21 Means 21” responsible driving program. Coors himself has said. “I made a mistake. I should have planned ahead for a ride.” But did he really make a mistake?

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Predictably, because of who Pete Coors is, this has made the rounds of all the major and minor news outlets, many pointing out the irony of Coors’ responsible drinking program and this incident. But I think there’s a larger issue that needs revisiting. This is an excellent example of how far over the edge neo-prohibitionist groups have gone in their quest to remove alcohol once more from society.

According to Pete Coors’ statement, he had “consumed a beer about 30 minutes before leaving a wedding.” He then ran a stop sign one block from his home in Golden, Colorado, and police stopped him in his driveway. According to the Washington Post, “[i]n one breath test, he registered a blood alcohol level of 0.073 percent. In a second, 20 minutes later, he registered 0.088. In Colorado a blood alcohol count of 0.05 results in a driving while impaired charge, while a count of 0.08 results in driving under the influence.”

But let’s assume Pete’s statement is correct. That means an average size person isn’t able to have even one beer thirty minutes before getting into a car. And I’ll assume he was drinking a Coors beer, which isn’t exactly a strong one. If the Colorado standard is 0.05% to be considered “impaired,” then one Coors was more than enough to make virtually any person unable to have even one beer while out at a social function. It’s a wonder any bars are even open in Colorado anymore. This is an excellent illustration of just how far the pendulum has swung in favor of the neo-prohibitionists. MADD and other similar organizations have been tireless in lowering the acceptable blood alcohol level in state after state. And no politician wants to be seen as being for drunk driving, a fact these vultures prey upon. But let’s look again at what Pete did that signaled the Colorado Highway Patrol that he was a candidate for suspicion. He ran a stop sign one block from his house, and made it there safely since that’s where the police arrested him. And not even ran it, but in the words of the arresting officer, “rolled through [the] stop sign.” In many places that’s known as a “California stop.” Now who among you hasn’t ever done that, especially right by your house where you’re intimately familiar with the driving patterns. At worst, he should have been cited for the stop sign and that’s it.

But over 25 years of scare-mongering tactics have even made police more apt to assume alcohol is involved in practically everything. You could just about here the officer’s mind whirring as he read the name on the license, assuming he didn’t already know who he was pulling over. Once he knew who he had, you just know a breath test was in order. Because there’s nothing else that’s been reported that suggests there was any other probable cause to test for alcohol. Certainly not “rolling through a stop sign” automatically rises to that level and I have a very hard time believing a 59-year old man who’d had one drink thirty minutes before leaving a wedding (plus whatever his driving time home was) would have appeared very drunk at all. It’s ridiculous in the extreme.

I realize that it’s unpopular to say so, but we’ve gone too far in punishing the majority for the sins of the minority. We do it all the time. Most of our laws are based on this theme. Look at airport security for a recent example. Certainly we need security at the airport, but all that’s really happened is people are more and more inconvenienced for very little, if any, benefit to increasing actual security. Who believes you’re safer flying now due to the “heightened security” at the airport? Investigation and surveys continually prove otherwise. The fact is if a terrorist really wants to harm a plane, he’ll figure out a way, and it won’t be by putting a bomb in his shoe even though everyone now has to take off their shoes because that happened just one time. But every problem demands that politicians make some show of addressing the problem. Usually this takes the form of new laws, procedures, etc. which do no real good and serve only to get them re-elected while the measures themselves really just screw the rest of us.

And so it is with drunk driving laws. There will always be people too stupid to know when not to get behind the wheel of a car. Before MADD, I concede that society didn’t handle those problem people very well and they truly were — and are — a menace. But making it impossible for the rest of us who maybe can exercise reasonable judgment about whether to drive or not was not the only solution, and it certainly wasn’t the best solution. Personally, I hate paternalistic laws that seek to tell people how to behave. Seat belts are a good example of this. Now I agree that we should all wear seat belts, but I bristle at the idea that it’s a law. It should never have been a law. People should have been encouraged to wear them but if they were too stupid to listen that’s where it should have ended.

But by lowering the blood alcohol standards, the number of people arrested for driving drunk has predictably gone up. Are the roads safer now? The statistics at MADD don’t seem to suggest that. The ones I looked at appear to simply fan the flames of fear and intimidation. One in every 121 drivers has been arrested for driving drunk. Does that seem even remotely reasonable? Are there less alcohol-related accidents now than before 1980? It only appears everything is getting worse, which means MADD can stay in business and keep soliciting funding for years to come without really solving the problem.

By now, perhaps you think I’m advocating driving drunk. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But how we define what being drunk is and how we deal with a person who showed poor judgment by driving when he or she was in no condition to do so, is at the heart of this problem. Making the standard for being intoxicated lower and lower has not made the roads safer and has victimized thousands, perhaps millions, of innocent people. It has had a chilling effect on legitimate businesses that serve alcohol and made most Americans afraid to get behind the wheel if alcohol has touched their lips at all. Is that really the kind of society we want to live in? We should definitely punish those people who show time and time again that they cannot be trusted to make good decisions. Such people are menaces to society and they should not be allowed to drive and should be punished for any crimes they commit. And most of the crimes a person could be charged with existed before 1980, such as vehicular manslaughter, unsafe driving, etc.

So all MADD did was make more people vulnerable to prosecution. The founder of MADD, Candy Lightner, began the neo-prohibitionist movement after her 13-year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver who “had three prior drunk driving convictions and was out on bail from a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier.” I would have been pissed off, too, and I can’t even imagine how I’d feel if my son, Porter, or my daughter, Alice, was taken from me in that way. But the way to have addressed that problem was to strengthen enforcement of drunk driving as it existed. That person should never have been allowed behind the wheel two days before or after the second or third conviction. The justice system failed in that case and was definitely in need of reform. I don’t think anyone would dispute that.

But out of that incident, everyone else who lives in our society has been punished for that person’s crime. We’ve all become the victim of people’s grief run amuck. An entire industry has been stigmatized as evil because some people can’t enjoy it responsibly. We all have suffered because of those folks and they’re the ones who deserve to be punished. There’s nothing I hate worse than a bad drunk. My stepfather was one. And I know a few others, even a couple in the beer business. I hate being around them. They’re the problem, there’s no doubt of that.

Contrast that with mobile phone use in an automobile, which has been shown to impair a person’s driving as much as or in some cases more than that of a drunk person. Where is the outrage toward phone companies that breweries face? Why aren’t phones stigmitized as harmful to society? Why is restricting phone users from getting behind the wheel of a car any different if the potential for harm is at least the same? Where are the websites and non-profit organizations to combat this growing problem on our nation’s highways? Why isn’t AT&T being picketed for putting our youth in danger on the road? I think this very disparity points to the unspoken agenda lurking beneath the surface with many neo-prohibitionists: alcohol is a moral issue and they’re using it to tell you and me how we should live our lives, which is to say like they want to live their own.

I think it’s time to say that. It’s time to stand up and say our alcohol laws have become ridiculous in the extreme and have gotten in the way of how we live our lives. In my opinion, laws should be nothing more than a balance of competing interests that produce the greatest good for the most people. People who put themselves and others at risk by getting behind the wheel of a car when they’ve had too much to drink should be punished. But we’ve gone so far out of whack in defining what that means that literally no one can use their own prudence or good judgment because having even one beer makes us all criminals. So because of a few, the many can no longer responsibly enjoy themselves with a reasonable amount of alcohol.

I realize Pete Coors must show deference to the law because of his position and because of his business. But I think the rest of us should use this incident to let our politicians know that our alcohol laws have gone too far and we must reform them in such a way that they’re fair and reasonable. People should be able to enjoy the legal pleasures of a free society without fear and without being treated like criminals. Otherwise, we will no longer have a free society at all in which to enjoy that beer.

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