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Age of Propaganda.

In "Age of Propaganda" (October), David J. Hanson and Matt Walcoff deride as "junk science" a Department of Justice study that purports to prove that tough U.S. drinking age laws, compared to Europe, produce lower rates of drunkenness and accidents here in the U.S. They rightfully point out that the so-called "study" doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But things are much worse than their article implies.

In a former life, I worked at the headquarters of a state transportation department. I had a good friend who worked in the public safety section. Their job was to analyze every single police report in the state related to motor vehicle accidents and create an entry in the state's official database that summarized the particulars of each accident. A high number of "motorist didn't see the stop sign" remarks might point out the need to make stop signs more visible by cutting trees, relocating the signs, and so on.

In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, there were extremely unusual directives regarding alcohol involvement in an accident. Rather than statistics guiding policy, a preordained policy dictated what the statistics would be.

Imagine an accident report where a driver stopped at a traffic signal had been drinking but was not legally impaired. A second driver gets distracted and rear-ends the stopped motorist. To most of us, driver inattention would be the obvious culprit in this accident, and the insurance liability would probably reflect as much. What policy dictated was that the "primary contributing factor," in bureaucrat-speak, would be alcohol.

Countless thousands of reports like this are in the state's database, which is then rolled up into the national statistics, while I don't know for certain, I'm inclined to think that this policy persists, and probably exists in all 50 states, since all rely on receiving federal dollars for highway construction and maintenance.


(surname and city withheld by request)
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Title Annotation:Letters
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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