Alcoholism: Seven Roads to Wrecks

Up to 650 Americans will die and 30,000will be injured on the nation’s highways this weekend. More than halfthese accidents will involve drivers who have been drinking, eventhough drinking drivers will constitute no more than 5% of themotorists on the road at any given time.

Medical men recognized, as far back as 1904, the close link betweendrinking and traffic mishaps; yet no effective technique for reducingthe carnage has been devised. One reason, suggests Dr. R. F.Borkenstein, chairman of Indiana University’s Department of PoliceAdministration, is that there are vastly different types of drinkingdrivers. While the threat of punishment may be a deterrent for some,others may need medical and psychiatric treatment.

Impaired Skill. During a recent seminar in Manhattan on traffic andaccident medicine, Borkenstein listed seven specific types: 1) thedrinking driver to whom neither drinking nor driving is a problem andwhose blood alcohol concentration never goes over the .10% or .15%threshold accepted by most states; 2) the skillful driver who usuallyimbibes moderately, but on occasion overindulges to the point where hisskill is impaired; 3) the man whose skill behind the wheel hasdeteriorated because of age or illness and who may consequently feelthe effects of alcohol more acutely; 4) the inexperienced driver, whoselack of skill may be magnified by even minute amounts of alcohol; 5)the normal driver who is unusually sensitive to alcohol; 6) themotorist who is prone to “aggressive, sociopathic driving,” and who maybecome even wilder with a few drinks in him; 7) the driver whose basicproblem is “chronic, compulsive, sociopathic drinking.”

Because they cannot control their deep-rooted impulses, those in thelast two categories are the most dangerous of all. The threat ofpunishment is usually effective with social drinkers, Borkensteinnotes, and those who are unusually sensitive to alcohol can learn toallow for it. But psychotherapy—as well as strict enforcement by thehighway patrol—may be the answer for the sociopathic driver, whosechief problem is immoderate behavior behind the wheel rather than atthe bar. For alcoholics, Borkenstein cautiously proposes suspendingtheir driving privileges until, through medical and psychiatric help,they have their problem under control. Alcoholism is hard to define anddetect, and to penalize a man for such a vaguely defined condition isnot consistent with the American concept of civil liberty. As a result,Borkenstein advises against suspending licenses except in cases offrequent alcohol-related violations of law.

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