Tuesday 5 November 2013

The New Puritanism of 0.05 [updated]

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.”
- H.L. Mencken

Well, we knew this was coming, didn’t we—there have been enough trial balloons around for long enough to let you know the fix was already in: from bogus studies on the alleged “social costs” of alcohol, to manufactured outrage about what goes on after dark in cities’ hotspots, to reality-TV clips on both prime-time infotainment shows of celebrities knocking back a few drinks and being even stupider than normal.

You know what I’m talking about: the new Brownlee Law, the government’s move to lower the drink-driving limit from 0.08 to 0.05 mg/ml of blood—the latest move in the war against pleasure, hailed instantly as such by New Puritans country-wide as “a great move to change our alcohol culture.” (“There ought to be a law against it!”)

Frankly, I wonder, what’s wrong with a culture that enjoys alcohol?

What’s wrong with a few drinks with your mates?

But nail up this latest Law next to the ban on beer tents (“how dare they promote an alcohol culture around children!”), the finger-wagging about South Auckland liquor stores (“it’s okay for us, to drink darling, but not those people”), the crackdown on Courtenay Place (“there are people out on the streets after my bedtime!”), and the hysteria about what youngsters might get up to after a few drinks (“they wouldn’t have done that in my day!”). The fear that someone, somewhere, night be having a good time !

Oh, but it’s all about safety.

Really? The overwhelming majority of drivers causing injury have blood-alcohol readings of well over .08, so these are recidivists already not listening to the law. The folk the Brownlee Law will discourage is not them, it is good folk having a few drinks. It is folk who share a jug with colleagues after work, or a few bottles at dinner with friends, or enjoy a few coldies watching the footy with mates, or in front of a great band, or after a drive out  to a country pub for lunch. Look to their being many fewer such social lubricants in future, as responsible folk who do enjoy a few are too discouraged to risk themselves. 

Just another way Nanny makes our lives that little bit less enjoyable, about which the New Puritans will and do applaud regardless of any argument about safety. (To paraphrase our quote from last week: “Pub culture is over. Five blokes talking rubbish over a pint died with the War Against Pleasure”).

And let’s look at the safety. Eric Crampton, responsible for exposing so much of the manufactured hysteria about the so-called “social costs of alcohol” (“it’s easy to get into the billions when you make you your costs, and ignore the benefits”), has taken a preliminary look at the figures bandied about over the Brownlee Law.

We're talking about something on the order of 13,000 car trips per day involving drivers in the affected range, or about 4.7 million car trips per year undertaken by those in the .05 to .08 range.

How many crashed, compared to those who weren’t in the .05 to .08 range?

If drivers in the .05 to .08 range had accident rates proportionate to those below .05, we'd have expected them to have had 1.3% of the total number of crashes net of those crashes involving those above the .08 limit. And so that would be 3.3 fatal crashes and 21 serious injury crashes, or about 24 fatal and serious injury crashes… [What we have, if we believe Brownlee’s own numbers*] works out to 29 per year. If this is ballpark correct, then we had about five crashes more than expected in 2011 among those in the .05 to .08 range.


Across the whole country.

In a single year.

Whose cause may not even have been their few drinks.

But this is all about “public safety.” Yeah right.

* And this is part of a political campaign, where numbers are routinely inflated.

UPDATE: Comments and info from around the traps:

  • “I'm guessing that what the research really shows is that there's quite a lot of missed revenue to be gathered from people blowing between .5 and .8 when randomly stopped.” – James Stephenson
  • “The wowsers have won and another kick in the guts is delivered to rural New Zealand who cannot access crown cars, taxis, buses or shanks pony after a couple of beers on the way home from a hard days work, paying the country's bills…
    ”Already the campaign to reduce the limit to zero is underway.” – GraveDodger
  • “If you note the coroners’ reports, most drunk people crashing are up around 209-300, not just a fraction over 50 or 80.” – Bruce Hoult
  • “Staying awake for 16 hours leads to a decrease in performance equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of .05%” - SleepPro Australia
  • “Another nail in the coffin of rural hospitality, because a meal without wine is called a takeaway…” – Mark Hubbard
  • “I see in 2011 259 fatal accidents and 8 of these 'alcohol offenders.'  That means 251 fatals were not alcohol 0.8 or above. Almost as though there were other factors involved in fatal accidents.” - Evan

UPDATE 2: Stats Chat looks at Brownlee’s announcement, as reported in the Herald, and finds three errors in just four paragraphs. The most egregious:

“Mr Brownlee is quoted as justifying the change by quoting total costs of drink driving. The social cost number in the fourth paragraph is 22 times larger than the [quoted] estimated benefit. You’d think that sort of discrepancy would draw some journalistic comment.”

Given journalists’ inability to aske the right questions, “hope” would be a better word than “think.”   Further …

“later in the story we are told about a victim of a drunk driver. A driver whose blood alcohol concentration was 190mg/100ml, more than twice the existing legal limit, and who was duly convicted and sent to prison under the old laws. Not the sort of person whose behaviour is likely to be affected by this change.”

Not the sort of thing journalists bother themselves about. Radio NZ’s Moaning Report this morning was happy to do the same.

UPDATE 3: You want “safety”? Right, let’s ban all drivers over 64, and under 30. And put everyone in between in aspic.

Graph from FiveThirtyEight.Com


Eric Crampton said...

My numbers here are pretty provisional - I'll update once I've got MoT's workings. Caveats:
1) I don't know whether MoT's breath test survey was properly randomised. If it wasn't, then it could over or understate the proportion of trips involving drivers in that range.
2) I'm guessing at the total number of car trips per day. One MoT fact sheet has commuters undertaking 850k trips per day, so I guessed a million total. If the true number is higher, then the number of trips taken by drivers in that range is higher.
3) I'm using 2011 accident stats and matching them with 2012 survey data on the proportion in each range. Maybe something changed between the two years.
4) It could well be that they're basing the big savings on reductions in crashes among those in the .08+ range, reckoning that folks who don't hit .05 will be less likely to have the extra few that push them past .08. But I won't know that until I see the workings. It's not crazy that there could be such effects, but it would take a bit of work to figure out how large they could be.
5) I can't see any evidence of that they're accounting for costs the policy imposes on drivers who have to cut back more than they'd like and who'd otherwise not have had an accident. The 2010 RIS makes zero accounting of such costs, but I haven't see the papers on this one.

Peter Cresswell said...

Thanks Eric. I added the word "preliminary" to your comments--as in, Eric "has taken a preliminary look at the figures bandied about over the Brownlee Law."

Mark Hubbard said...

I've been fighting this by corresponding with the wowser MPs and blogging on it since Nanny Lees-Galloway's private members bill was drawn.

Mrs H and I love eating out. Once a week at least when we're living in the Marlborough wine district. The winery restaurants are our haven. I nearly always have the equivalent of a handle of beer, and then half a bottle of wine with an hour meal: I suspect that puts me over the new limit.

Another nail in the coffin of rural hospitality, because a meal without wine is called a takeaway: not interested. We'll just stay at home, which Nanny state is turning slowly into our prison.

... The evidence cited of the small number in serious accidents between the new limit and old is spurious. There's not evidence if the concerned driver caused those accidents, or the other was at fault.

Eric Crampton said...

@Mark: We also don't know proportions at fault in any other accident. Not nuts at all to reckon there to be an excess accident rate among those in the .05 to .08 range, though I'd really really want to adjust for time-of-day effects (some times of day are riskier, and I want to know whether these drivers are driving at riskier times of day). Bigger question is whether the policy passes cost benefit: does it save enough lives to be worth the reduced consumption utility.

Or, if you prefer, Mark, think of it this way. You're the owner of a fee-based private road system. You want to maximise profits. People pay less to use your roads if they're riskier but they also pay more to use your roads if they can have more fun while driving (using phones, having had a couple beers before heading out, and so on). You have to figure out what set of rules for your road maximises your profits.

One solution would be to go straight to a liability system where any driver totally or partially at fault in any accident has to fully compensate all victims. People would buy insurance against that liability, and that just pushes the problem back a step: how much should you charge for liability insurance where your expected payouts increase with the risk imposed but your expected subscriptions go up if you're less heavy-handed. You should then just price policies to reflect inherent risk. One set of drivers could buy the .08 insurance, but it'll come at a higher premium than the .05 insurance, which will come at a higher premium than the .03 insurance. But the next problem then is a pile of folks who are effectively uncollectable buy the cheap .05 insurance, have at-fault accidents at .08, and then go bankrupt because their insurance won't cover them where they're above .05. So we're then back to the road owner having to make decisions.

twr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
twr said...

It's not as bad as Labour's fantasies and lies on the issue:


"The bill's policy statement said: "There is demonstrable evidence and research already available which shows enough driver impairment between the proposed 0.05 limit and the 0.08 limit to warrant action. A drug and alcohol expert from the United Kingdom has estimated that this measure could reduce our road toll by two-thirds as it would alter driver behaviour.""

Presumably most of those "two thirds" will just change their behaviour by magic.

Quality team from Labour, quoting quality scholars, reported by quality journalists without a single murmer of dissent.

Eric Crampton said...

@twr: That's absolutely nuts. There's zero indication of alcohol involvement in most crashes. 30% of crashes have alcohol involved (not causal, involved as contributing factor. Sum of all contributing factors is 200%)

Anonymous said...

The govt like the control and they sure do need the money.

Just say no and don't stop.


Anonymous said...

Also, always remember to treat the policeman what stops you (at a random stop or whatever) with the utmost revulsion and the deepest contempt. No swearing though. No need for that. Just make the job uncomfortable, awkward and as difficult as possible. Long silences. Not answering any of the questions you do not have to answer. No explanations for your action or inactions. Look him straight in the eyes- he WILL look away. All you say is what you have to because you have to. Then explain that what they are doing is vile and wrong. Stop at that. Do not engage or respond in conversation or debate. Convey contempt, never anger.


the drunken watchman said...

when it goes to zero, then you wont be able to have your half bottle wine and couple of pints the night before, either :)

and it will, as surely as night follows day :0

when the announcement came over that the age for baby-seats had been raised to 7, I said to my kids - "Mark my words, next it will be 7 1/2 , and so on". But blow me down, less than a week later, the talk on the wireless was of raising the age to 10 !!

I love it.

Judge Holden said...

Oh but there's some squawking going on!.

Eric, the better you look, the more you see. For example:


The best rant goes to Mark Hubbard. Mark, just how much do you think you should be able to drink before you stagger out of the restaurant to your car? I mean, I know it's the end of freedom now that the law's about to change so that instead of getting mildly toasted and driving you will only be able to get slightly less mildly toasted before driving, but chin up old boy, less chance of you killing someone eh?

Anonymous said...

JH, the current limit is not presumed to be midly toasted although I suspect I never get close to even that before I drive home. Why must you exagerate everything? Is it because you have nothing rational to offer?

Eric Crampton said...

Never said it wouldn't reduce crash numbers. But we need to weigh savings from fewer crashes against costs incurred by drivers who would have gotten home perfectly fine at 0.06 and would scale back consumption. Possible it passes cost benefit but that nobody has weighed yet these costs imposed on drivers worries me.

Judge Holden said...

Explain how you measure the "cost" of scaling back by tiny amounts your alcohol consumption on any given evening, Eric. I'm fascinated. And while you're at it you'll need to count the auxiliary benefits incurred from lowering that consumption, and the benefits of shifting that consumption to other goods and services and or savings and investment, and any multiplier effects. Please, go ahead.

"JH, the current limit is not presumed to be midly toasted"

No, it's well and truly toasted, but I was giving Mother Hubbard the benefit of the doubt.

Mark Hubbard said...

Judge Holden: I wnat to be able to drink what I have been over a one hour meal for the last 30 years, which has me under existing level: a handle and half a bottle of wine. I am absolutely competent to drive with that. The new standard level is two standard (that's a thimble) per hour. That will put me over.

Mark Hubbard said...

Addendum: 30 year spotless driving history, not incurred a single demerit point.

Anonymous said...

What is the difference between a person with 0.799 ROH in the blood driving a car presently vesus a person with 0.799 ROH driving a car in, say, a year from now versus a person with 0.499 ROH or a person with 0.099 ROH driving? Fundamentally, is there anything materially different between them?

Whose business is it anyway?


Judge Holden said...

"The new standard level is two standard (that's a thimble) per hour. That will put me over."

No it won't. Relax. You can have around twice that in an hour, so your half bottle is safe. Take your time.

"Whose business is it anyway?"

The other road users whose lives you are deliberately endangering, Amit darling.

Anonymous said...


"Deliberately endangering"? According to whom exactly?

How is it you determine that a driver going past with 0.799 ROH is safe today but is "deliberately endangering" in the near future? Same driver, same road, same car etc.


Judge Holden said...

According to the other road users whose lives you are endangering in order to demonstrate your freedom, Amit, my sweet.

Mark Hubbard said...

Holden: watching the Campbell Live piece on the new limit, where the men drank less that half a bottle of wine (they were only drinking beer at 4%) over two hours, a handle and half a bottle of wine would put me over as far as I can see.

Plus you've gone from calling me a loon wanting to drive drunk - you offensive git - to now trying to justify the fall to the new wowser limit: when you have to explain you lose mate.

Anonymous said...


Which other road users, Holden? Which specifically do you claim to speak for? What about all those who do not agree with you?

And again, "How is it you determine that a driver going past with 0.799 ROH is safe today but is "deliberately endangering" in the near future? Same driver, same road, same car etc.


Judge Holden said...

I don't speak for them, they're clever enough to figure out for themselves they don't want you driving on the same road as them when you're pissed. Go sample them, Amit, my dear. If you can find enough of them who subscribe to your extremism you can get this outrage overturned.

Your second point is a strawman. Go look at the evidence I pointed Eric towards, my lovely.

Anonymous said...


You wrote, "I don't speak for them" and then, "they're clever enough to figure out for themselves they don't want you driving on the same road as them when you're pissed" which is, of course, you pretending to speak for them. You have demonstrated your fundamental nature as dishonest yet again. You are quite the liar.

And yet again you fail to answer questions put to you. For a start, you avoid dealing with the issue of those who happen to disagree with you. What about other road users who do not agree with you, Holden? How is it your opinions count while dissenters do not?

You still have not managed to answer this, "How is it you determine that a driver going past with 0.799 ROH is safe today but is "deliberately endangering" in the near future? Same driver, same road, same car etc."

The abstract you link to does not address that issue, neither does the paper itself.

Hint: The problem you are being asked to address relates to how your term "deliberately endangering" is generated, why it is arbitrary and random to begin with, why it is arbitrarily and randomly altered, why that renders it without substance or meaning.