Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Commentary: When We’ve Had Enough

Adirondackers have a strange relationship with alcohol, especially on campus. This fact really hit struck me after a local kid, just graduated from high school left for Iraq. He was 17 when he signed up – when he comes back, he’s still won’t be able to drink legally. Sure, kill a few Iraqis, get shot at (or killed), see your buddies blown to bits, clean up some blood and gore, meet people living in unimaginable suffering and poverty, but when you come home – don’t have a glass a wine – and don’t get into your car after you’ve had two.  Between March 19, 2003 and May 7, 2005 more than 480 of the 1,589 US military deaths have been young people under the age of 22 [statistics].

Standing outside the local Nice and Easy, Stewarts, or family grocery on a weekend sees a stream of locals, tourists, and summer residents getting their beer, and lots of it. When there isn’t much to do – only the biggest towns have a movie theater, bookstore, or coffee shop – hanging around the fire with friends and a bottle of wine or a few beers has its appeal. No fireplace? Then head out to the local tavern – towns that don’t have a single other open business after 7 or 8 pm, sometimes have two or three bars. During the week, some communities are deserted, especially in winter, except for the local pub.

So why is there a war on against bar owners and their patrons? Why do towns with few local business and few residents still have a county cop shop and/or state trooper station and constant patrols? Sure, like all the new roadblocks and firehouses built around the region after 9-11 we can point to the abuse of our irrational fears by institutions already tapped into a state and federal tax redistribution system – we pay it, they take it and use it against us.

So too with the newest attack on the DWI front. The Republicans in the NYS Senate passed legislation to once again increase the penalties for driving while intoxicated (as the Republicans in the Assembly demanded last year). Ask any tavern owner and they’ll tell you that the biggest drain on their business has been the onslaught of police overzealously enforcing the DWI laws. Even restaurants point to reduced business, dinner checks that are half what they used to be, bartenders making half the money they used to, all thanks to the fear of having half a drink (or inhale) to many (according to the law – some folks get one or two) and getting a d-we on the way home.

What about the dangers of drunk driving I hear some of you shouting… well we’ve had laws on the books since the eighteen nineties that require you to stay in your lane, require you to not drive recklessly, require you to drive within the bounds of road conditions and speed limits. In Saratoga County, about 1,100 of the 8,600 arrests police make annually are for DWI – and 25 percent of people under correctional supervision have been charged with drunk driving [source].

No doubt there are horrible and needless deaths from idiots who get outrageously drunk, climb behind the wheel, and then violate all civility by driving recklessly and killing someone in the process. But guess what? Senior citizens driving when they don’t have complete control of their vehicles, young drivers on joy rides, big rig drivers who’ve been on the road too long, idiots with a penchant for speed or aggressive driving, crazy border patrol who don’t use common sense in setting up roadblocks, cute girls putting on their make-up, and businessmen and women yapping on their cell phones are all killing themselves and others behind the wheel.

“When you have people getting in the car with that type of blood-alcohol content, it just proves that people aren’t thinking when they’re drinking,” Karen Pettigrew of the Saratoga County Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving told the Saratogian, “Every person caught is a potential tragedy averted,” she said – well thank god we are imprisoning people at the highest rate in the world to avert potential tragedies – of course the Saratogian duly reported that statement without question.

We don’t ban cell phones, or make-up, so why do we hunt – and that’s what’s happening out there, police are hunting for these so-called criminals who would have, using all common sense and legitimate statistics, driven home perfectly safely, and who, if they knew the right person, would have continued on their way home no matter what their blood-alcohol level. They are also hunting, using children as bait, the low-wage workers who serve them – with corporate crime on the rise, don’t officials have better things to do than this? or this? or this?

I agree with Anna over at Bad Samaritan, the folks at Modern Drunkard Magazine and the DUI Blog – there are always going to be a few boneheads who don’t follow the rules and simply aren’t civil – it’s time we ended the hysteria and the attendant police state and took a more reasonable look at our relationship to alcohol.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




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