The problem of drunk driving in the United States is nearly unsolvable. At least, it is a problem so tied to our post-WW II pattern of development -- which itself is nearly unsolvable -- that any logical response is elusive to our sensibilities. This is a tragedy on many levels.
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Eleven years ago I found myself in Southern Italy, the Puglia region, touring small towns on my own. One evening I went for a walk to look for a place to eat and I came across two young boys. They were sitting on the curb eating French fries, which looked really good. The problem was, my Italian was quite rudimentary and I had no clue how to say "French fries" (which, as it happens, is not what they call them anyways). After some gesturing and smiles, one of the boys went inside and ordered me some patate fritte.
I bought a round of Coca Colas for the three of us and we sat on the curb eating fries, doing our best to communicate with each other. After a short period of time, a pack of kids pulled up on their bikes. One of my two new friends introduced me to his fratello, a twelve year old named Victor. Victor and his teen-biker pack went in the bar where we got the fries and a few minutes later emerged with their own beverages.
Here's a group of unsupervised kids, the youngest probably eight and the oldest not more than thirteen, which itself is something that we here in the United States can hardly relate to. They were hanging out on their bikes, riding uninhibited in the street. Again, we have no real context for such a thing here. But the strangest thing of all for this American's eyes was to look up and be surrounded by a bunch of kids drinking beer.
And not just a little can of beer, but these big malt liquor size cans, the kind groups have tried to ban here in America. This is the stuff we throw parents in jail for, but here I am, in a modern, advanced and sophisticated country, sharing a beer with a bunch of prepubescent kids. And it was obvious that, to them, there was nothing at all odd about any of this.
Last week I was forwarded an article by Eric de Place (pseudonyme?) from Signtline Daily pointing out the inherent lack of logic in requiring large parking standards for bars and taverns. From the article:
There’s no better measure of our perverse relationship with cars than the fact that nearly every city and town in North America has laws requiring drinking establishments to provide parking, and yet roadside memorials to victims of drunk driving are mostly illegal. A single year of alcohol-impaired driving kills more Americans than the last decade of war has, but our land use codes practically encourage driving home from taverns. Bar owners can be held legally liable for their patrons who imbibe too much, but our laws force owners to offer parking for their customers.
This is all another example of how our suburban living arrangement just does not, in any way, align with our cultural norms.
I'm willing to bet that every U.S. citizen that reads this article knows of someone who has died in an alcohol-related auto accident. Died. Deceased. Had their life cut short. Thousands each year, many of them innocent victims who themselves were not driving under the influence of alcohol.
Police even have a check box for "alcohol-related" on their accident reports. Ponder that for a minute.
Many people in this country feel we are too lenient on drunken drivers. I've heard some argue that we should, at a minimum, take their license away for life on their first offense. And there's some logic to that. If you would so recklessly endanger people's lives, you should not be on the road. There should be no second chances with something so serious.
But of course, there are second chances. And third. And fourth. The sad reality is that we are really incapable in this country of denying someone's access to a car. And with good reason. Except in a handful of urban areas, life ain't happenin' without a car. There would be no job, no trip to the grocery store, no doctor visits....heck, you even need to drive to the AA meeting. I admire all of you that have gone car free, but really, if you live in Phoenix in summer and the grocery store is a convenient two miles away, you going to walk? How about Minnesota in the depths of winter?
In the great experiment of suburbanization, we've reconfigured our urban and rural spaces around accommodating the automobile. Our world is largely scaled for cars. There are few places scaled for people, and in those places we don't have a drunk driving problem.
So we're in a Catch-22. In modern America you physically can't live without a car, but there are a certain percentage of us that also can't live without alcohol. Throw in an arbitrary drinking age -- a rite of passage -- and a culture that glorifies binge drinking and public intoxication, and you have a situation that we are incapable of dealing with.
And perhaps that is what amazes me the most. It is a little like the car seat issue I talked about earlier this year (blog post, podcast). Every child advocacy organization promotes car seats ad nauseum, but none recommend that you reduce the amount of time you drive with kids in the car, let alone that we build mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. With drunk driving, we've come up with monitoring devices that you have to breathe into before the car will start. How novel.
We accept a lot of senseless death because we can't imagine a different living arrangement, one where the automobile was not so omnipresent. I think we'll look back at this time period and be more than a little ashamed of our priorities.
- Do we really care about children? (April 18, 2011)
- Podcast: Car Seat Nation (April 21, 2011)
- Law and Order and Parking Lots from Sightline Daily
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