Guest Opinion: Inaction on drunk driving legislation lamentable

Published 12:37 pm Thursday, May 11, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Rev. Mark Creech 

There is a poignant scene in the movie Schindler’s List  when Oskar Schindler, the film’s main character, played by Liam Neeson, walks through a crowded train yard filled with Jewish prisoners he has managed to save from the concentration camp. This film, released in 1993, produced by Stephen Spielberg, one of the most historically significant motion pictures of all time, depicts Schindler as visibly overcome with emotion as he views many faces that represent a sea of suffering.

As he stares at the masses of people, Schindler’s own face becomes contorted with sorrow and regret. He contemplates even tiny actions he might have taken that could have saved more lives but he omitted. Despite having saved more than 1,100 Jewish lives, Schindler sobs uncontrollably – the weight of his failure to act when he could have weighs heavily on his conscience with a profound sense of guilt.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

An old proverb says: “Opportunity never knocks twice at any man’s door,” which implies if one fails to act or take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself, sometimes it never comes again.

There is a quote that originated from the Talmud which emphasizes the value of each life and the importance of taking prompt action to preserve it. It reads, “To save one life is to save the world entire.”

Legislation has been introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly, which provides a tremendous opportunity to significantly save lives. House Bill 148 – Driving/Reduce Legal BAC Level would lower the legal blood alcohol concentration limit (BAC) for drunk driving from .08 to .05.

Drunk driving is a severe problem. It’s one of the leading causes of death on our roadways. Since the government started collecting statistics for drunk driving fatalities in 1982, as of 2019, the total number of drunk driving fatalities in the United States is approximately 326,000. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 10,497 fatalities in North Carolina due to drunk driving from 1982 to 2019 (the latest statistics available).

Mike Clampitt (R-Swain), the champion of HB 148, argues that new drunk driving legislation to save lives in the Tar Heel state is more urgent than ever. He notes North Carolina has grown exponentially in recent years from a population of seven million to over 10 million, which means an increase in impaired drivers on the state’s roads. Impaired driving, says Clampitt, swelled 18% from 2019 to 2020, and it’s rapidly getting worse. It is currently at an epidemic level, he says.

Clampitt also notes how an impaired driver struck the rear of the Speaker of the House, Tim Moore’s state vehicle recently, not once but three times. A providential message?

Clampitt got the idea for lowering the BAC limit from legislation enacted in Utah in 2017, which has proved to be a phenomenal success. In a joint letter to members of the N.C. House Committee on Judiciary 2 and its Chair, Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry), 10 national public health and safety advocacy groups advised:

“A recent study, Evaluation of Utah’s .05 BAC Per Se Law, released by the NHTSA, provides critical data on the success of Utah’s .05 percent BAC law…The study finds that Utah experienced a nearly 20 percent drop in traffic fatalities in 2019, the first year the law was in effect, compared to 2016, the last year before the law was enacted. This improvement in roadway safety occurred despite an increase in vehicle miles traveled and outpaced neighboring states as well as the nation as a whole.

“Opponents may state that lowering the BAC will reduce alcohol sales and endanger certain businesses but reducing BAC limits does not discourage alcohol consumption. In fact, the Utah study found that state revenues from taxes related to the hospitality industry continued to rise, and tourism increased…Once again, the Utah study provides clear data showing that arrests due to drunk driving did not spike, nor was the criminal justice system overwhelmed.”

So, please. How is this legislation not a win for everybody? How could such a law even be considered controversial?

Contrary to what many think, it’s not safe to drive after having only a few drinks. Research has demonstrably proven that drivers with a BAC level as low as 0.5 to 0.79 are at least seven times more likely to be involved in a single-vehicle fatal crash than drivers without alcohol in their system.

Washington needs to get serious about saving lives from impaired driving. North Carolina needs to get serious, too. Yet, this proposal, HB 148, doesn’t seem to be on the radar of North Carolina House or Senate members for this year.

Granted, state lawmakers are overwhelmed with considerations as public servants. The list is exceedingly long. Realistically, they can’t get to all of them. Generally speaking, the issues they concentrate on serve our state well, and they deserve our commendation. But preserving life should always take precedence.

Maybe if we read not only the statistics on drunk driving but could see the faces in its ocean of pain – perhaps if we considered the numerous lives that could have been saved but won’t be because we didn’t act now – then possibly – we might find our omission lamentable.

Rev. Mark Creech is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina.