Update: The driver in the Times Square car crash was not drunk, but may have been under the influence of other drugs. Police still do not believe the attack was related to terrorism, although it’s unclear if it was deliberate, according to WNBC in New York.
You could almost hear the sighs of relief as CBS News tweeted out the news: “NYPD says crash in Times Square was likely DWI, not terrorism.” The news came after a car on Thursday crashed into a crowd at Times Square, killing an 18-year-old woman and injuring 22 others — triggering fears that this was yet another terrorist attack like those we had seen in Nice, France; London; Berlin; and Stockholm, Sweden.
Immediately, just about everyone in media knew what this would mean: This story would suddenly get a lot less attention. If it was a terrorist attack, it would lead to days of 24/7 news coverage about the threat of terrorism. If it’s just a drunk driving incident, maybe it’ll get some traction for the day, but not much after. (It later turned out that the driver was not drunk, but may have had other drugs in his system.)
Regardless of the specifics of this case, we should care about both terrorism and alcohol-related deaths. But terrorism kills at worst a few dozen Americans each year, while alcohol is linked to at least 88,000 deaths annually, of which more than 10,000 were driving-related in 2015.
Yet terrorism gets far more media attention.
As MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes tweeted shortly after the news broke, “This horrible event in Times Square looks like DWI, which kills *thousands of more people a year than terrorism* so we can ignore it.” (He later clarified he meant “we” as in the media.)
Drunk driving deaths have plummeted over the past few decades, largely as a result of policy changes that suggest officials, at least, haven’t always ignored the problem. In 1981, drunk driving killed more than 21,000 people. In 2015, it killed more than 10,000. An array of reforms played a big role in that reduction, including raising the legal alcohol age to 21, pushing police to take the enforcement of drunk driving laws much more seriously, and general improvements in car and traffic safety.
But much of that action happened in the 1980s and ’90s, when MADD and other advocacy groups came together in a strong, well-funded effort to take drunk driving more seriously. Since then, the issue has fallen off the national radar.
And based on the research, there is a lot more that America could be doing to prevent alcohol-related deaths — yet there is little media or public attention to this issue, so there is little pressure for lawmakers to put this research into action. The result is one of the big causes of death in America continues killing thousands of people a year.
There are many policy proposals for dealing with alcohol-related deaths
When Americans think about alcohol policy, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Prohibition, which effectively banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. But there are all sorts of other policies that could help address bad outcomes due to drinking.
A small sample:
- A higher alcohol tax: A 2010 review of the research in the American Journal of Public Health came out with strong findings: “Our results suggest that doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
- Reducing the number of alcohol outlets: A 2009 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that limiting the number of alcohol outlets (such as liquor stores) in an area through stricter licensing, for example, can limit problematic drinking and its dangers. But it also found that going too far can have negative results — by, for example, causing more car crashes as people take longer drives to outlets and possibly drink before returning home.
- Revoking alcohol offenders’ right to drink: South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety program effectively revokes people’s right to drink if a court deems it necessary after an alcohol-related offense. The program, specifically, monitors offenders through twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or a bracelet that can track blood alcohol level, and jails them for one or two days for each failed test. Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.
- Put state governments in charge of selling alcohol: A 2014 report from RAND concluded that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops, they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use.
These are just a few of the ideas that experts have put out there. There are many more ways to curtail alcohol consumption and misuse without outright banning it.
Maybe these policies still go too far for some people. Different individuals will likely disagree on whether these proposals go too far in restricting personal liberty, even if they do save some lives. But the research suggests such policies are at least worth considering.
Yet lawmakers have paid very little attention to alcohol policy. As Philip Cook, a public policy expert at Duke who wrote Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, told me, the last time Congress raised the federal alcohol tax was 1991 — and that has let the actual impact of the tax erode due to increasing inflation.
“The great opportunity that we have is to restore taxes to the real value that they had a few decades ago,” Cook said. “That’s justified by the current social costs of drinking, and would have all kinds of beneficial effects, while being justified just from the point of view that drinkers should pay for the damage that they do.”
Part of the problem is that policymakers just don’t feel much pressure to act on these kind of public health problems — at least in the same way they feel compelled to act on an issue like, say, terrorism. So thousands of needless deaths continue happening in America every year.