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When a little is too much

A LITTLE speed, a little haste, a little drinking - society wants very much to think that it can manage the challenge of alcohol-related highway fatalities by moderation alone. It resists anything like an absolute prohibition on driving after drinking. And yet the illusion that there is any safe level of drinking after which one can drive, or that drinkers can hold themselves to such levels, continues to contribute to tragedy on the road.

New York Times writer Adam Clymer writes most movingly, and clearheadedly, about the issue in the Times's Sunday magazine. His daughter Jane emily was struck and killed while walking on a Vermont road by a driver who had been drinking. The driver had had a prior drunken-driving arrest, and had gone through Vermont's state-sponsored education program for such offenders. The trouble with such programs, Mr. Clymer notes, is that they can actually seem to affirm that it is all right to drink and drive. ``The handbook for the Vermont course states that a blood-alcohol level of .05 to .1 percent can be reached if a person has had from two to six drinks in an hour,'' Clymer reports. ``While `some impairment can be measured in this range and it varies from person to person,' according to the handbook, `the person is not seriously impaired - although it is not good practice to let her drive.'''

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``The experiences of this year hardly make me the sort of knowledgeable expert I have long sought out as a reporter,'' Clymer notes of his efforts to sort through the public-policy aspects of his family misfortune. ``Nor can I write with the detachment I have practiced for more than 25 years. But I think our national mistake is not what we do after a drunken driver kills someone. Nobody who drives drunk thinks he or she might kill another person. Most of them don't even believe they are drunk. The problem is keeping people from driving after they've been drinking.''

Part of the problem, too, is that first offenders are usually dealt with leniently in most states. By contrast, Minnesota's practice of automatic revocation of a driver's license for failing a breath test has helped cut in half the incidence of drunken driving in that state.

A Louis Harris poll for Prevention magazine recently indicated that 10 million Americans say they sometimes or always drive after having four or more drinks - 1 out of every 16 drivers.

Bars, restaurants, and private establishments, most of which can be reached only by automobile, have an interest in promoting drinking. Lawsuits are forcing these to monitor guest drinking more closely. But the alcohol industry still glamorizes drinking in advertisements, particularly at this time of year.

It is a myth that a little drinking before driving is all right. Sadly there is no such thing as a little tragedy when the myth is proved wrong.

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