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.