Is Rigorous Age Identification the Best Way to Prevent Negative Social Outcomes from Alcohol Consumption?

This holiday season, while visiting friends and relatives in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to go to a few of the fine restaurants that the metropolitan area provides. The food was excellent, the company even better, and the only odd thing was that on three occasions I was carded.

The three ID requests did not come at clubs or bars; they came at Washingtonian Top 50 restaurants.

I will happily accept that I have certain youthful features (my spry gait, for example), but, up close, I do not look anywhere near 20, which leads me to believe that (much to my chagrin) it was not the suppleness of my skin and a genuine fear that I might be a freshman in college that was prompting the age verifications. Rather, it appeared that the wait staff had been warned to be extremely, extremely cautious (indeed, when I inquired at Jaleo, I was told that a bartender at the restaurant had been dismissed on the spot recently as a result of an “underage sting”).

There is no doubt that alcohol abuse in the United States is a very grave concern, but is ensuring that food and beverage establishments review the driver’s license of anyone who might possibly be under 30 a prudent use of our limited resources? I, for one, question whether a “rigorous age identification” approach to preventing negative social outcomes from drinking is the appropriate one.

Indeed, it seems almost laughable when one considers the broader context.

Ordering a bottle of wine for the table to go along with the first round of tapas at Jaleo prompts a carding, but order a second, or third, and the waiter doesn’t bat an eyelash. Add a nice Port for desert and all you get is smiles. On your way out, as long as you don’t literally fall on your face, does anyone check to see if you can safely operate a motor vehicle? Or inquire into how many pints you’ve had when you leave the bar next door? (As a colorful detail, I’ll tell you that when I left one of the restaurants in Northern Virginia, there was a man, barely able to keep his balance, urinating against a building as the bouncer at the bar he had evidently just come out of paused in his ID-checking duties to look on and laugh.) And even if you’re well over the limit, how likely is it that you actually get pulled over when you drive home?

On New Year’s, we took a cab from D.C. back to Virginia (where we were staying) at two in the morning. Driving back on Route 66, I can tell you that I saw at least 10 drivers exhibiting clear signs of dangerous levels of intoxication (weaving, erratic speeds, and even attempts to backup on the highway after a missed exit). The police who were patrolling the highway had pulled over a grand total of three people of the hundreds passing by.

11,773 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2008. Thousands more were injured or killed in alcohol-fueled violence. And millions of dollars of property was damaged by drunken individuals.

If D.C., Virginia, and other states want to eliminate these ills, they need to get more serious about treating the roots of the problems. Undercover ID inspections at fine restaurants isn’t going to do it.

The real solutions are far more difficult and costly. Among other things, we need to think sincerely about concentrating development and improving public transportation to reduce the number of people who drive while intoxicated. We need to consider taxing alcohol more heavily to reduce consumption and using the money to more rigorously police (and prosecute) antisocial behavior fueled by alcohol. We need to invest in alcoholism treatment programs and youth education. And we need to figure out acceptable ways to intervene in drinking behavior after the moment it is initiated.

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8 Responses

  1. FreakoPeako says:

    Didn’t the Freakonomics dudes say we should drive drunk to avoid walking drunk?!?

  2. “We need to consider taxing alcohol more heavily to reduce consumption…”

    Is there any problem in America that shouldn’t be addressed by imposing more taxes?

  3. ohwilleke says:

    Relaxed land use regulation could help too. The demise of the neighborhood bar, because a bar is seen as a NIMBY land use, means that more people can get there only by car, and also have to drive further on roads were more traffic when they do drive.

    Another land use approach that would increase regulation would be to dramatically reduce the availability of parking within easy walking distance of bars. This would encourage the use of public transit, taxis, and car pooling with a designed driver. Sound far fetched? Its not. Here in Denver, and in most cities with urban ball fields, people do just that when attend major league sports events.

    Or, the limited parking solution could be given a tech twist. Offer only valet parking to non-residents of a neighborhood with lots of drinking establishements, and then only return the vehicles to drivers who pass a breathalyzer test. This also creates jobs for valets who would become de facto privately DUI enforcement officers.

  4. Adam Benforado says:

    Ohweilleke, Interesting ideas – it would be nice to see more cities thinking creatively along these lines about ways to reduce the societal costs of alcohol abuse.

    Maryland Conservatarian, Say a little bit more about what you object to with respect to taxing alcohol. The tax referenced in the post (unlike a normal income tax) would be paid only by those who choose to buy alcohol and would go directly to trying to reduce the harms caused by those who buy alcohol (harms which are currently paid for by drinkers and non-drinkers alike).

  5. Orin Kerr says:

    I’m not sure I see the connection between efforts at enforcing underage drinking laws and efforts at enforcing drunk driving laws, or why we have a choice between them.

  6. Adam Benforado says:

    Orin, My understanding of the issue is that Washington, D.C., given existing budgetary and other constraints, has to make tradeoffs about where to focus its efforts in combating the social ills related to the consumption of alcohol. If you have $2,00,000,000 to deal with the problem of reducing drunk driving deaths, you could put it all into enforcing drunk driving laws or you could put it all into making sure that people under 21 don’t drink alcohol (I believe proponents of the Drinking Age Act pushed for the legislation along just such grounds) or you could split it between the two and other approaches. Do you think that’s not the right way to look at it?

  7. Ken Rhodes says:

    >>There is no doubt that alcohol abuse in the United States is a very grave concern, but is ensuring that food and beverage establishments review the driver’s license of anyone who might possibly be under 30 a prudent use of our limited resources?>>

    Who is the “we” represented by the phrase “our…resources?” I should think the resources consumed by the restaurant to card you were minimal, and did not substantially raise (a) the cost of your dinner, or (b) your taxes.

    Yes, all your concerns about the potential damages of intoxication are valid. Yes, all your ideas about limiting public intoxication deserve serious consideration.

    But no, that doesn’t mean we ought to stop doing something that is cost-free, which has the purpose of enforcing one law among many directed at your praiseworthy objectives.

  8. Adam Benforado says:

    Ken, Thanks for the comments! I guess I would contest the notion that ensuring that restaurants review the driver’s license of anyone who appears possibly under 30 is “cost-free.” Places like Jaleo would not card their patrons rigorously if there was not oversight by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (there’s very little incentive to do so and significant incentives not to) and that government oversight costs tax dollars (which goes directly to things like the “undercover” operation that resulted in the bartender being dismissed). There are hundreds of restaurants, bars, and liquor stores in the Washington area and making sure that none of them sell to people who are under 21 requires quite significant resources that could arguably be devoted to other approaches.