The American government thinks its citizens drink too much. The Irish government thinks its citizens don’t drink enough.
Last week the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that our 50 states united lower the maximum blood alcohol content under which Americans are legally allowed to operate a motor vehicle. The current definition of “drunk driving” entails a BAC level of 0.08 percent or above; the NTSB advocates reducing it to 0.05 percent.
In Ireland, meanwhile, the Kerry County Council recently approved a motion to allow certain people to be issued “permits” to drive home after drinking what is otherwise too much liquid courage to legally blunder behind the wheel of a car.
In examining these twin test cases, what we see is not only a difference in laws, but also a difference in values and priorities. I dare say these two proud nations can learn a thing or two from each other.
To begin, we should duly note that the new legalized drunk driving policy in Kerry County could hardly be said to be the work of the entire Irish government. Per contra, this “permit” idea is the brainchild of a singular elected official to address a singular concern. Most other Irish politicians are rather amazed—and, in many cases, appalled—that such a conceit passed muster with the Kerry County Council.
The concern is over a chunk of elderly Irish folk living way out in the country, whose social lives depend upon driving into town for a chat and a pint. Danny Healy-Rae, the councilor (and pub owner) who proposed the permit idea, frames it as a means of ensuring such people are not isolated from the rest of the world by deciding to stay put, from fear of being pulled over by the authorities on the drive home.
“These are not the ones causing accidents,” Healy-Rae explained, defending the initiative. “What is the alternative for them where no public or other transport is available? Staying at home lonely, staring at the four walls?”
Well, when you put it that way…
To be sure, the issue of old-age isolation that Healy-Rae addresses is a real one, and not just in Ireland (nor, for that matter, just among the elderly). Healy-Rae’s opponents acknowledge as much, disagreeing only with his proposed solution.
The real cultural distinction between Ireland and the United States is that, in our country, discussions of this sort never see the light of day.
It is an old story that Ireland has a more casual attitude toward liquor than America, and many in the Emerald Isle complain that people such as Healy-Rae are unhelpfully perpetuating this image by suggesting that more or less any problem can be solved by drinking.
Officially, the United States has been running as far away from this kind of thinking as possible for the last several decades. For us, imbibing can only ever be the problem, not the solution. The NTSB’s new recommendation to tighten the definition of legal drunkenness is only the latest illustration.
With the Kerry County story in mind, here is what I wonder: Would America not be better off if the regulation of alcohol consumption were more localized, rather than centrally dictated from Washington, D.C.?
(Per legislation, the setting of a BAC limit is, in fact, a state issue; however, those who set theirs higher than the federal recommendation are denied significant highway funding as a result. This can hardly be considered state sovereignty.)
To wit: In compact, densely-populated cities with preposterously narrow streets, on which the slightest driver error can yield the most disastrous consequences, it is entirely within reason to impose strict standards as to how many beers one can consume before one becomes a public safety hazard behind the wheel.
But out in the desert Southwest, with its wide-open spaces on which one can drive for miles without encountering another human being? Should the folks there really face the same scrutiny vis-à-vis drinking and driving as the folks in Boston or New York City?
We have decided, after all, that the regulation of speed limits can be outsourced from the federal government to the states, understanding that people driving across Montana or Texas would never reach their destinations if they were subject to the lower limits that make perfect sense in states of smaller scale.
Why not treat boozing in a similar fashion? While it is true that the effects of alcohol on one’s faculties are not dependent upon geography, why not leave it to local jurisdictions to determine the legal consequences of those effects, in the context of their particular milieu?
I’d drink to that.