Wooden Horses

Liberty benefits from asking practical questions. When someone wants to save the world, or at least a piece of it, a free man or woman ought to ask just how that goal is going to be achieved. That is often as important as the goal itself. Everywhere I look, I see colored ribbons symbolizing something that should be eliminated from modern life. What never gets discussed is the amount of acceptable bad behavior or acceptable cost or acceptable loss, and the balance of the level of enforcement or investment required to eliminate a behavior, disease or what-have-you, versus the amount of fungible resources or freedom lost per incremental advance for the social cause. The people in the cause often say things such as “one life lost is one too many”. Really? Every activity has a risk / benefit calculation. We know that more people die in highway accidents at higher speeds than at lower ones, but the speed limit is 65 in most states (still too low in my opinion). If we were really serious about eliminating highway deaths, we’d drop the speed limit to 20 mph and make all our cars out of PVC and Styrofoam. But the level of highway death at 65 mph is acceptable to pretty much the majority of people*.

The usual method for driving the goals of a social movement past what a rational observer would define as a reasonable balance of risk versus benefit is to obfuscate the level of risk with what Numberwatch calls a Trojan Number This is a number that, while representing a real statistic, is not relevant to the discussion at hand. The latest in the do-gooder assault on freedom and liberty hiding behind a Trojan Number is this program by a NJ high school to introduce random piss testing for alcohol. The Trojan Number is 2000, and the specific subtype is the Virtual Body Count.

Now Pequannock and several other schools around the country are using government grants to step up their alcohol monitoring, as underage drinking and driving kills about 2,000 people under the age of 21 each year.

So here’s another instance of the MSM failing to do what they ostensibly do best – checking assertions, and protecting our Liberty in the process. Let’s do the reporter’s and editor’s jobs and examine that Trojan Number, shall we? First, there’s that conveniently round 2000. It’s a nice number isn’t it? Allowing someone with a more florid turn to their prose to say that “thousands” of teenagers are at risk. But that phrase “under 21” stuck me as a bit off. The NHTSA reports statistics in blocks of 5 years, and the relevant cohort for teen driving is 16-20. A newborn is “under 21”, but hardly likely to fail a random drug test administered in a high school. Hardly likely to be driving, either.

As I suspected, that phrase allowed our putative Greeks to load up their wooden horse with every fatality due to a drunk driver of anyone under the age of 21, passenger or driver, drunk or sober. So take away the teenage victims who were sober passengers, and what’s the maximum number of lives saved? Well, if these statistics are accurate, 1198 drivers between 16 and 20. So, in fact it’s thousand, not thousands, of lives at stake. One begins to doubt either the statistical sophistication or the honesty of our Greeks, here. The phrase “underage drinking and driving” leads one to believe that the entire statistic involves a drunk teen behind the wheel, so I’ll take honesty for 2000, Alex**.

But wait, this is a local effort. In New Jersey. So any national number is by definition a Trojan Number. As it turns out, NJ had about 1/35th of the national population, but proportionately far fewer drunk driving fatalities in 2005. But maybe their teens are running rampant and account for more fatalities than in other states. (Damn Guidos.) How many lives could a state-wide program like this possibly save? Well, it turns out that the figures for teen drivers are available. Thirteen. In 2005, thirteen younguns between the ages of 16 and 20 died in a NJ accident after drinking. “But wait”, my gentle, numerate readers cry – “most kids, even those dumb as a box of rocks, are pretty much out of high school sometime in their 18th year. The 19 and 20 year olds would not be caught in our little fascist high school dragnet.” And y’all would be right. According to the Census Bureau, there are about the same number of kids in each of those age brackets, so we should only include the 16, 17 and 18 year olds, and leave out the 19 and 20 year olds.

[UPDATE: Thanks to alert commenter Kelly, who pointed out both something I missed, and why blogging is more effective than traditional media – I can state that I overlooked the fact that NJ not only refuses to let you pump your own gas, they do not allow 15 year olds to get a learner’s permit, as is the case in every other state I’ve lived in. We can kick out the 16 year olds because they must drive with an adult in the car. If there’s drunk driving going on in that scenario, I doubt that this program will have much effect.]

Assuming that the fatalities are evenly distributed (when in fact they are probably skewed to the older kids***), that means that a high-school program such as this would only save at most 2/5 of 13, or 5 kids. Well down into the single digits, now.

But wait, there’s more. SADD itself admits that the most dangerous time for teen driving, sober or drunk, is the summer. According to FARS, 42.7% of fatal accidents for NJ 16-20 year olds in 2005 occurred in the summer (June – August), and 41.7% of accidents involving intoxicated drivers occurred in those months. Assuming that teens follow the overall population trend (FARS does not allow double cross-tabs so I can’t get at drunk teen driver fatalities in the summer), then it is highly likely that at least 2 of those 5 kids bought the farm in the summer, where, once again, our little exercise in conditioning teens to accept intrusive behavior from authority in the name of safety would not solve the problem.

Now we are down to three kids. No more Trojan Numbers. This is the number that the debate should be about. This the benefit that the do-gooders in NJ are willing to pay for in that loss of privacy, degradation of freedom, and diversion of resources in the school system. As Tree Hugging Sister (my favorite blogging former Marine) pointed out, are the schools so rolling in cash that this money could not be better used for educational purposes? Well, they are using a federal grant for this, but is the DOE so successful in all of their actual educational initiatives that they should be putting money towards undermining the Constitution? The only thing the DOE is concerned about is extending their bureaucratic reach, as far as I can see.

Since this is a district-by-district initiative, the money spent here is really unlikely to catch one of those five kids statewide. Maybe this was well-meaning and an unintended over-reading of some simple statistics. But I don’t think so. These people, these professional lobbyists, at MADD and SADD have been campaigning and keeping score since at least the early eighties. They know what the real deal is, even if the school board doesn’t. It’s time we started asking the media to do what they claim to do best: tell us the actual score, not regurgitate some press release.

The other aspect of reporting that the MSM claims to beat bloggers in is balanced analysis. But all we get is a short quote from the ACLU, with whom, for once, I am in wholehearted agreement. Now maybe it’s the editor’s fault and not the reporter’s, but this statement certainly could do with one or two sentences of follow-up:

And the federal government’s own substance abuse experts warn that urine testing has drawbacks, because the test is so sensitive it can mistake the traces of consumer products like hand sanitizer or vanilla for alcohol.

Let’s talk about unintended consequences, shall we? Especially when the enforcement part of this little exercise amounts to no more than “I’m going to tell your mommy”, for now. Let’s talk about the local CVS seeing a spike in Germ-X sales, and the local Shop Rite seeing a spike in vanilla extract and vanilla-flavored junk food. Let’s talk about a spike in drinking and driving on Fridays that would otherwise have been spread out all over the weekend, and the attendant increase in Monday truancy. But most of all, let’s talk about urine swapping, and the fact that big companies hire someone to watch you pee when you take a random drug test. Talk about degrading and demeaning. Not something I’d want my son or daughter to have to submit to. Who’s going to do that job once the inevitable urine swap story works its way up to the principal? The school nurse? Are we sure that federal grant is going to cover all the costs? Nah, it’s not the Media’s job to speculate, right?

I think I’m moving to Vermont.

* One of my favorite Bloom County strips involved Opus getting up to defend the 55 mph speed limit as the Meadow Party’s VP candidate. Milo used pretty much this argument to force him back to a 10 mph speed limit and send him to the dandelion patch.

** I’m usually not this sarcastic in person, but two things really bring out the wise ass in me: anything with even a whiff of European sneering at us uncultured Americans, and misuse of statistics.

*** According to this, anyway: Young men ages 18 to 20 (under the legal drinking age) reported driving while impaired more frequently than any other age group (Shults et al. 2002, Quinlan et al. 2005).

11 thoughts on “Wooden Horses”

  1. You have done yeoman’s work here! But you neglect this:
    1. more kids on road driving in the summer because no school and they may be going or coming from work or from the beaches. In school, freshmen at most schools not allowed to have cars. Most recent studies show that teens are most likely group for accidents not from drink but from inexperience.
    2.Speed: depends on roads. That said, high speeds is hell on gas consumption.
    3. Move to Vermont? You wish!

  2. Nate,

    1. That’s why I put in the caveat about not being able to get the summer teen dui fatality stats from FARS. MADD and SADD conflating the total teen deaths with those 1/3 where alcohol was involved (and most of them not at the 0.8 level) is a whole ‘nother Trojan Number I thought would derail the flow. After my last rambling post, I thought I’d better streamline.

    2.My time is worth more than the marginal price of extra gas used. If someone does not want to go 75, take a local.

    3. No, not really. I hate Yankee winters. I’ll settle for Virginia and its open carry laws, just as soon as my employer develops a presence there.

  3. One thing you forgot to mention is that politicians want to show that they are actually doing something – even if/when they aren’t. Laws or programs like the one proposed with the kids pissing make the person who introduced it look like they actually care, without really doing anything constructive. Most in the general public swallow the numbers floated out whole, hook line and sinker. I did it myself for many years until one day a number was floated out about my industry which I knew was b.s. and I decided to start looking more closely at ALL the crap the msm was vomiting forth on a daily basis.

    When I read about the New York iPod ban the first thing that went through my head was, as usual, “who sits around and dreams up this stuff”. Nothing more important going on in New York? With the passage of “easy laws” as I call them, the politicians can show that they care about the children, public safety, and, of course, the public safety of our children.

  4. I did it myself for many years until one day a number was floated out about my industry which I knew was b.s. and I decided to start looking more closely at ALL the crap the msm was vomiting forth on a daily basis.

    I had a similar with the Press and its reporting.

    In the late 1990s there was a crime story that happened in Chicago’s South Side, a cousin of mine happened to be one of the person’s involved. This crime story ended up being the kind that crosses over to the National media and then is reported by everyone. The amount of factual data that they got wrong was disturbing going to even the simplest detail such as his mom’s maiden name and his age. Ever since then I’ve been forced to approach almost every story I read with a certain amount of skepticism because I’ve seen how absolutely lazy reporters tend to be..

  5. Drop the 5 to 3. The non-learner’s-permit driving age in New Jersey is 17, not 16, so 16-year-olds are out as well. (Unless you’re driving drunk with an adult in the car, which is another issue entirely.)

  6. Jack, $10 million is a pretty big value on those teenage lives. I hate to be a cynic, but the likelihood that someone who is drinking and driving at 17 is going to be a net producer, rather than net consumer, over the course of a life is pretty low.

    But let’s assume that this person gets their act together and earns the median income in NJ: $43,771 in 2005. I’m going to make some simplifying assumptions. Let’s assume this person reaches that right out of college and stays there the rest of his or her working life (I’m assuming age 70 for SS retirement for a teenager of today). Let’s assume an average 3% wage inflation rate, and that this person saves 10% of his or her income at an average 5% return (I’m including payments towards a house in this, as well). I get a total of $6.1 million in economic value out of this person, assuming that wages keep pace with inflation (hah!)and assuming that this teenage screw-up pays back all his or her student loans and never costs society anyhting in rehab, prison, legal mediation of a divorce, etc. etc.

    Two things make this rosy scenario highly unlikely – he (most likely a he) is already well on the way to a life of alcoholism, and he is very likely in a socio-economic group unlikely to either hit the median salary in NJ or to save prudently. So I’m going to discount that calculation by 50%. $3 million. I’ll give you another $300,000 for avoiding the cost of scraping the remains of this deliquent off of the roadside. Times three, the total savings here is $10 million for all 3 lives saved over the entire state(I know you calculated your figure before Kelly pointed out my mistake). That is, 3 lives saved if my prediction does not come true that everybody who is likely to drink and drive parties on Fridays and skips school on Mondays. Not to mention any legal costs the program incurs from lawsuits by parents or teens would further reduce its cost-effectiveness.

    But I still oppose this on Consititutional and libertarian grounds. In this case, since most teen dui fatalities involve only the teen (and usually some innocent tree), I’m very willing to let Mr. Darwin’s law throw a little chlorine into the pool. And you know this program won’t be 100% effective, so what will MADD want to do when teen fatalites drop from 13 to 11 or 12? Even more stuff that won’t solve the problem, but will create problems for the rest of us, you can bet on that.

  7. if by eliminating the bill of rights we can save the lives of 2000 teens, then should we make those ten amendments more modern and more in tune with today’s needs and risks?

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