Photo Credit: Flickr User Ludmila Tavares
It is the home of Carnival. The country makes 1.3 billion liters of cachaça every year... and drinks about 99.5% of it. (The other 0.5% is on my kitchen counter, I swear to God.) As I figured out on the back of a cocktail napkin, that works out to approximately 6.79 liters per annum for every man, woman, and child in the country. Throw a rock in Minas Gerais and you'll hit at least three or four cachaça distilleries. And, oh, did I mention Carnival?
Anyway... So what am I to think of the positively draconian alcohol laws that are in force there?
From the WaPo:
Anyone caught driving with a blood alcohol content [BAC] of .02 percent or higher (compared with .08 in the United States) faces a $400 fine, loss of their license for a year, an impounded vehicle and jail time.
I'm pretty sure that a BAC of 0.02% is pretty close to what you can get from breath spray or maybe two or three bourbon balls at a family Christmas dinner, but don't take my word for it.
You'd have to drink an awful lot of cachaça — or be a bureaucratic government regulatroid — to be so impaired that you couldn't figure out what has happened since:
The statistics suggest the roads are no safer than before. In the law's first five months, the number of car accidents on federal highways in Rio de Janeiro state rose 17 percent, compared with the same period in the previous year. Injuries also rose, by 32 percent, although deaths fell by 8 percent, according to police.
Across the country, the picture appeared worse. In those five months, accidents, injuries and deaths on federal highways increased over the previous five months.
The problem, the government of course claims, is that there just aren't enough breathalyzers for the task. The entire state of Rio de Janeiro only has 13 such devices, according to the article.
A BAC test, one of the main tools used by law enforcement to catch drunk drivers, determines how much alcohol is present in the bloodstream. A BAC of 0.08 percent, for instance, means 0.0008 of your blood is alcohol. At that level, though, you're hardly slurring your words or staggering.
In 2000 President Clinton signed a federal law aimed at pressuring states to lower their BAC [Blood Alcohol Content] limits from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent. States that didn't go along were threatened with the loss of federal highway funds. Karolyn Nunnallee, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), predicted that a nationwide 0.08 percent standard "will save nearly 600 lives every year."
It hasn't worked out that way. In the July 2007 issue of Contemporary Economic Policy, Sam Houston State University economist Donald Freeman examines the most recent data available and concludes "there's no evidence that lowering the BAC limits...reduced fatality rates, either in total or in crashes likely to be alcohol related." This is true, he found, both in states that adopted a 0.08 percent BAC standard on their own and in states that did so under federal pressure.
I humbly ask that my readers and all cachaça consumers enjoy our favorite spirit responsibly.
I also ask that lawmakers exercise a shot-glass worth of common sense.
Which of the two do you think is more likely?
Ronald Reagan was right: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"