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Room for improvement: Minnesota's DWI rankings

As a physician I believe that the acute effects of alcohol on the human brain are really a continuum of impairment,  and that Minnesota's current blood-alcohol-level (BAL) of 0.08 is a silly contrivance: as if a driver is drunk at 0.08 and entirely sober at 0.06.

Would it comfort you to board your Nordelta flight knowing that the pilot is at 0.05? Could you accidentally kill your 8-year-old son while out turkey hunting and call yourself sober at 0.06? As someone who thinks the BAL for drivers should be all zeros (0.00), it's hard to believe I might find myself siding with the American Beverage Institute, but recently I did.

A couple of weeks ago the Star Tribune ran an Associated Press story with the headline, "Minnesota Ranks Among Worst in DWI, Study Shows." The ranking was based on a government report called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which found that rates of driving under the influence of alcohol were highest among persons aged 18 or older living in America's breadbasket. While 15 percent of drivers nationally reported driving under the influence of alcohol, Wisconsin took the top spot at 26.4 percent, then North Dakota with 24.9 percent, followed by Minnesota (23.5 percent), Nebraska (22.9 percent) and South Dakota (21.6 percent).

A few days later the Strib posted a letter to the editor from the managing director of the American Beverage Institute. The bar lobby and I agree on one thing: The study behind the eye-popping headlines wasn't much of a study. As the title suggests, it's a survey, and a fairly subjective one at that. The footnotes of the NSDUH report show that its data was generated by a nationwide telephone survey; respondents were asked in the three different questions if they had driven a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs in the last 12 months.

Study question 'a bit squishy'
That's it. That's the science. No breathalyzers, no DUI records. In an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the director of the Resource Center on Impaired Driving at the University of Wisconsin Law School characterized the study question as "a bit squishy" and "pretty subjective." What does driving under the influence mean to you? Anything you want it to mean. Maybe the Upper Midwest respondents were just more honest. Maybe we're living in the honesty belt.

If Gopher Pride (and not being killed by a drunk driver) is your thing, you'll be glad to know that Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave Minnesota a much better ranking than the NSDUH survey. In its 2006 MADD State Progress report, the Land of the Loon ranked number 22 (highest being best), based on the fact that 30.6 percent of driving fatalities in our state involved a drunk driver. Though that number was a 7.4 percent decrease from previous years, the MADD report commented, "Still significant room for improvement, as it is one of only 11 states that can't do checkpoints." (Wisconsin came in dead last, pun intended, with 42 percent of fatalities involving drunk drivers.)

Jean Mulvey, executive director of MADD Minnesota, told me, "We used to have sobriety checkpoints here in Minnesota, until the state courts declared them unconstitutional." Couple that with the fact that Minnesota was the last state in the nation to lower the legal BAL from 0.10 to 0.08, and you can see that when it comes to drinking and driving, we have an attitude problem. Mulvey didn't want to comment specifically about the details of the NSDUH study rankings, but said, "Everything MADD puts out has to be researched-based, and we stand by all of our data."

115 arrests each day
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety used the NSDUH report as a chance to highlight the senselessness and preventability of drunk-driving fatalities. It didn't poke any holes in the NSDUH data, but instead focused on the fact that enhanced enforcement campaigns resulted in a record number of DWI arrests in 2006: nearly 42,000 motorists. That's 115 every day.

Jean Ryan, coordinator of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Impaired Driving Program, admitted that the NSDUH rankings weren't so much revelatory as they were a chance to keep the DUI issue in the public eye. "Being [ranked] 22nd, or whatever, is not going to be OK. There are still way too many young people that die making a poor decision," Ryan told me. "You should never be stagnant; you should never be complacent until you don't have one alcohol-related fatality."

Want to walk the walk for sober, safer driving? Sign up for the Mothers Against Drunk Driving 2nd Annual "Walk Like MADD" 5K on Saturday, June 7.

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