Sunday, March 28, 2010

High Gas Prices Save Lives

It's now official.  Traffic fatalities in 2009 were at their lowest since 1954, and in 2008 were at their lowest since 1961.  This was despite the fact that now the population is much larger, there are much more cars on the road, and much more vehicle miles traveled than back then.  Similar trends have been noted in preliminary data from Canada as well.  While many factors likely contributed to this lifesaving trend, perhaps the most salient one of all was gas prices, which had been rising steadily since 2004 and spiked dramatically in 2008.

Gas prices are now known to have a significant effect, and are thus now emerging as one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives on the road.  Carefully controlled studies have found this to be true, and the fatality rates of 2008 and 2009 confirm this.  While 2009 had lower gas prices than 2008, the driving habits learned in 2008 had yet to be unlearned, and this was likely prolonged by the recession.  Similar effects of gas prices (and recessions) occurred in 1974-1975, 1980-1983, and 1990-1993.  Contrary to popular opinion, the price elasticity of gasoline is not zero, or even close to zero, and it seems to rise dramatically when prices go above $3.00/gallon.  Longer-term elasticites are about twice as strong, suggesting the effect builds over time.

The effects on fatalities are not limited to reduced vehicle miles traveled; while that drops too, even controlling for this we can see a decrease in deaths.  "Discretionary" driving declines the most when gas prices rise, and most fatalities occur from this type of driving, including the majority of alcohol-related fatalities.  Speeding and aggressive driving also decline in an effort to save fuel and money.  Thus, the price elasticity for gasoline demand actually understates the effect on fatalities.

By that logic, it seems that one of the best ways we can reduce traffic fatalities (both alcohol and non-alcohol) would be to raise the gas tax.  Of course, that would make a lot of people mad.  But if it saves even one life, it's worth it, right?  Isn't that what groups like MADD have said about things like the 21 drinking age?  Judging by the lack of enthusiasm about raising the gas tax, it appears that the pro-21 crowd doesn't practice what they preach.  Or maybe it's all about liberty for "just us," not all.

If we know higher gas prices save lives, not to mention the planet, what are we waiting for?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Lincoln (Nebraska) Miracle that Wasn't

You have probably heard about the supposed miracle that has happened in Lincoln, Nebraska.   At the University of Nebraska--Lincoln, a combination of tough laws, heavy-handed enforcement, and strong public support (from community members over 21) has led to a decrease in "binge" drinking and associated consequences since 1997.  Or at least that's what they're telling us.

UNL is a dry campus, and has been such for a while, but the surrounding town has been anything but dry.  But then the crackdowns happened, apparently with a special focus on underage drinking.  Police, college officals, and landlords all teamed up to reduce underage drinking and out of control parties, and the consequences meted out for either are severe (at least compared to other college towns).   Lives and careers have been ruined to one degree or another as a result.  In fact, it's become a virtual witch-hunt that would likely make McCarthy himself blush.

The crackdowns are actually part of a larger anti-alcohol program known as A Matter of Degree, funded by grants from the neo-temperance Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and directed by Dr. Richard Yoast.  Ten colleges around the country, including UNL, participated in the AMOD program since 1997 and it is still ongoing.

So was it worth it?  Well, if you dig a little deeper you will find that according to its own police department, the city of Lincoln had a record high number of DUI arrests in 2009.  In fact, 2008 and 2009 were the two worst years, even surpassing the old record from 1992.  Of course, analyzing arrest rates poses a chicken-or-egg problem; it could simply be tougher enforcement, not more drunk driving.  However, student surveys show that the percentage of students who report driving after drinking actually doubled from 2003 to 2006.  We speculate that many of the parties have simply shifted outside of the city limits, so party-goers drive there, get drunk, and drive back.  If that's success, we'd hate to see what failure looks like.

And the decrease in "binge" drinking according to surveys was from 62% of students in 1997 to 45%, meaning that they went from well above average to merely average.  No better than average in fact, and average is still quite high.  Remember too that correlation does not equal causation.  Part of it could be that prospective students who are most likely to be party animals simply choose other colleges instead after hearing about what a police state Lincoln has become.  And high school student drinking in Lincoln is still a persistent problem, one that most likely will remain as long as the police continue disproportionally targeting 18-20 year olds.  (Of course, Lincoln is clearly not the only place in the country where this is an issue)

As for the crackdowns purportedly reducing crime, LPD crime statistics for the city as a whole appear to debunk that claim as well, at least for the most serious crimes like homicide, rape, and aggravated assault.

Thus, it appears that it was a rather hollow victory overall.  While there are some good aspects to their overall strategy of reducing high-risk drinking, it would probably be best if Nebraska decided to lower the drinking age to 18 (it actually used to be 19 until the 1980s) and targeted the actual troublemakers rather than those who are simply drinking and/or at the wrong place at the wrong time.  But the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would never even consider that, given their apparent bias against alcohol.

In fact, the rather expensive AMOD program itself is highly questionable at best.  A 2004 study found that in the first five years of implementation, little to no change in high-risk drinking (or its consequences) was seen in the aggregate.  Five out of the 10 schools that participated (including UNL) did see some improvement, but it was hard to tease out what actually caused what due to all the variables involved.  The RWJF, of course, put a positive spin on the results, as does the neo-temperance crowd overall.  But the rest of us can clearly see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

So let's make a toast to Richard Yoast.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Emperor Is Naked

We should have written about this last year, but we recently learned that MADD has severed all ties with the Century Council, and all of the reasons why.  For those who don't know, the Century Council (TCC) is an organization dedicated to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking, that is funded entirely by America's leading distillers.  Cynics, however, would say that the organization is just a political ploy to deflect blame from the alcohol industry.  MADD's Dear John letter to them noted that the primary reason for the split was the Century Council's initial opposition to mandatory ignition interlocks for first offenders, a group MADD rightly referred to as "ticking time bombs" since they have already driven drunk 88 times on average before being caught.  For that particular issue, we at Twenty-One Debunked tend to agree with MADD.  Ignition interlocks are the mimimum that should be imposed on drunk drivers, and in fact we think the laws against DUI should be much tougher.  Usually only extremely die-hard libertines or those with vested interests would be opposed to that, and TCC has since officially switched to neutrality on the ignition interlock issue.

However, another less-publicized reason noted in the letter was that TCC allegedly condoned drinking before the age of 21, despite the organization's generally unequivocal stance supporting the 21 drinking age.  This was based solely on a quote by TCC's president, taken way out of context, concerning an ad campaign designed by college students through the American Advertising Federation's student competition to reduce excessive drinking.  The actual quote was, "[t]he behavior is taking place, the best thing we can do is reduce the harm." Despite the TCC reaffirming its support for the 21 drinking age, MADD still was not satisfied since their refusal to retract that specific quote (though clearly true) could somehow be perceived as "undermining" the drinking age or "condoning" underage drinking.   Now that's just lunacy--even the slightest hint that one can see cracks in the facade of prohibition is somehow bad?

Just go to any college campus (except perhaps Brigham Young or Bob Jones) and you will see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.  The 21 drinking age simply doesn't work--the majority of 18-20 year olds still drink.  And while fewer of them now drink regularly than they did back in the 1970s, which may or may not have anything to do with the drinking age, the more they do when they do.  And the problem of truly dangerous drinking, though always there, is arguably worse in colleges today.  Forcing alcohol underground only makes it that much more dangerous (and appealing), a lesson we should have learned in the 1920s but somehow conveniently forgot when it comes to today's young people.  We need better solutions, the kind that can only work with a lower drinking age.  What better time than now?