Our Solution

How we learned to control drunk driving, and some modest alternatives

Secret History

by Jack Neely

This past spring, a couple of British fellows were in town. For one, it was a return trip, his first time back since he produced a BBC documentary about Knoxville that won an international prize 12 years ago. He's now 44, though he could have passed for a man as young as, say, 41. The other man was a poet, novelist, and memoirist of 56; his hair was a good bit grayer than it is on the flyleaf photos in his first books, which appeared about 25 years ago. He's soon to be the subject of a major motion picture based on one of his memoirs; he'll be played, as a younger man, by the well-known British actor Colin Firth. (Who, for the record, is almost 47.)

Both, when they ordered a pint of beer in a downtown Knoxville bar, were turned down because they couldn't prove they were 21. They had IDs: British drivers' licenses, with their birthdates. But no photos. The UK doesn't require citizens to carry photo IDs. So, no dice on that beer, unless they were to walk back to their hotel to get their passports, and bring them back to the bar, just to prove they were adults. They were thirsty, and dismayed by the development. They said they'd had beer all over the globeâ"this particular trip to America had taken them to New York, Cleveland, and small-town Alabama. Never, anywhere in the world, they said, had their request for a pint been turned down for lack of proof of age.

The British are apparently ignorant of what we have learned in Tennessee, that we alone among the peoples of the Earth have discovered the secret to controlling teenage drinking: We do it by annoying the middleaged.

And now, thanks to the new state regulations that grocers must demand proof of identification, we're even stricter than we were during their visit.

I'm often asked to show my ID, to prove I'm as old as my son is. I'm carded much more consistently at 49 than I was at 15, when my friends and I used to buy pitchers of beer at Pizza Hut with impunity. (We knew it was illegal, like bottle rockets on the Fourth of July, but we meant no harm, and didn't even feel very sneaky about it.)

I don't mind showing my ID. But recently at a grocery store, I felt as if I'd blundered into an absurdist skit. I was shopping with my 17-year-old daughter, and got a basket full of groceries and a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The clean-cut clerk, who was probably not quite half my age, rang me up, and said, â“I need to see some IDs.â”

I assumed the plural was a slip of the tongue. As I showed him my driver's license, I said, â“You don't need more than one, do you?â” I don't carry any ID except my driver's license.

â“I need yoursâ"and hers,â” he said grimly.

â“Hers? She's 17. The beer's for me.â”

As customers waited in line behind me, he checked with the manager. I felt a little embarrassed for the kid. But he had a point. He didn't know if I would walk out the door and give the whole six-pack to my daughter. That happens all the time, and the law can't do much to prevent it. Legal adultsâ"parents, big brothers, older dates, opportunistic alcoholicsâ"buy beer or stronger stuff, for teenagers every day. Many teenagers have jobs, and money, and it's easy to find older friends who will buy them some booze.

Some of our attempts to control teenage drinking are merely ineffective; others seem perverse. At a Sundown event a few years ago, one teenager, frustrated that he didn't get to drink beer with everyone else at the big party, tried to think as small as he could, get the most bang per ounce. So he smuggled in some high-proof vodka in a small flaskâ"which, unlike any significant quantity of beer, hardly made a lump. But he wasn't used to drinking vodka, and he drank so much he fell unconscious, and his friends couldn't wake him up. He recovered in the Emergency Room.

I've witnessed similar scenes at Neyland Stadium. The kind of stuff it's easy to slip into a no-alcohol situation tends to be a lot more dangerous than beer. It's hard to carry a single beer in your pocket. A single beer won't make most people legally drunk. But you can carry enough vodka in your pocket to kill you. Many teenagers do.

Everybody hears that teenage drinking in Europe is no big deal. At 22, traveling in Italy, I visited the University of Rome, where some younger cousins, both of whom were raised Italian, showed me the school cafeteria. There at the end of the line, just like a high-school milk dispenser, was a wine dispenser. While you held a tray with one hand, you'd fill a glass with the other. It didn't matter who you were. The machine couldn't tell. It was, after all, just wine.

The problem is not that teenagers with gray hair are sometimes able to buy alcohol.   I don't think the problem is even teenagers drinking beer. The problem is kids drinking too much and then driving.

Maybe our problem isn't moral so much as geographical. People live over here, but the bars are way over there. And parties are way over there. And the bars close almost four hours after the buses stop running.

In many cities today, and in Knoxville long ago, before zoning laws discouraged them, neighborhoods had corner bars; people would walk home. Today, except for a few establishments downtown or in the UT area, nobody walks home from a bar. Few take the bus. We're proud to be Americans; when we go out to drink, we insist on driving, no matter what.

We may not drive to the bar expecting to get drunk. But as we drink, the dangers of drunk driving seem to diminish. At best, law enforcement catches a tiny percentage.

Some people do go to bars with non-drinking designated driversâ"at least, that's what I've heardâ"though you wonder what's in it for them. Often the number of people drinking in the bar is pretty close to the number of cars in its parking lot. Most responsible bartenders won't serve a customer who's obviously drunkâ"but obviously drunk tends to be way past .08 percent, the degree at which the law has determined people don't drive safely.

If a bar's customers all drive to the bar, and three beers can make you too drunk to drive, shouldn't all parking-lot bars and restaurants cut their customers off after, say, two?

If we really don't want people to drink and drive, if we're really serious about that, maybe we should rethink how we lay things out. Zoning requires businesses to provide space for parking lots. In the case of bars, that may be backwards. Maybe no bars should have parking lots. Or maybe the parking lot should be accessible only by a bridge, 50 feet long and four inches wide, across a hog wallow.

Likewise, zoning keeps bars prudently out of walking distance of most residences. If the point of our zoning laws were to maximize drunk driving, they could hardly have done better.

I don't know the answer. I've gotten used to the idea that I'm getting checked when I buy beer more often than I was when I was 15.   I just don't think that serves any useful purpose except to perplex Europeans. Which may have been the point all along.


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