Melanie Sloan, Washington, column: A sneaky effort to stop safe-driving technology
By Melanie Sloan WASHINGTON -- Sarah Longwell, who describes herself as "managing director" of something called the American Beverage Institute, conjured up quite a nightmare scenario on these pages on April 1, turning efforts to create a smart, ...
By Melanie Sloan
WASHINGTON -- Sarah Longwell, who describes herself as "managing director" of something called the American Beverage Institute, conjured up quite a nightmare scenario on these pages on April 1, turning efforts to create a smart, sensible way to keep drunk drivers off the road into a bizarre vision of moms unable to pick up their children from soccer practice ("Safe driving' technology targets social drinkers," Page D3).
Longwell decries the attempt to improve "ignition interlock" technology that would prevent a car from starting when a driver is legally drunk -- not, as Longwell claims, when he's had just one glass of wine.
And she deplores what she claims is the possibility that 0.000004 percent of the time, a sober driver might not be able to start the car.
She goes on to engage in wild speculation that interlocks will be required in every car.
In fact, the bill Longwell opposes doesn't mandate anything. It only pays for research to see if current technology can be improved.
"The goal is this would be a voluntary technology," said J.T. Griffen, senior vice president for public policy at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to Politico.
"MADD's perspective is, we think every parent in America is going to want this on their vehicle."
Longwell herself admits: "The bill doesn't mandate anything, but ultimately that's what they want." Her paranoia is not shared by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association of America and the National Beer Wholesalers Association. All of those groups support increased funding for ignition interlock research. They estimate that it could save more than 8,000 lives every year.
So why would Longwell fantasize like this? Because it's what she's paid to do.
Longwell's real job is vice president at a public relations firm run by Richard Berman, the king of phony "Astroturf" front groups for assorted industries. She's a paid flack trying to undermine the influence of MADD at the behest of corporate interests that don't want their own fingerprints on such a dirty game.
According to research conducted by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Berman & Co. uses corporate money to set up phony nonprofits to disseminate misinformation. In addition to ABI, he's behind at least 22 other groups by our count; he often serves as the executive director. And he passes himself and his staff off as experts on a number of hot-button issues.
All this astroturfing apparently keeps Longwell very busy. In addition to her position at ABI, she is the communications director for both the so-called "Center for Consumer Freedom" and the so-called "Center for Union Facts," to name just two.
Longwell's April Fool's Day column would be funny if not for the fact that the stakes are life and death. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 10,000 crash deaths were the result of drivers impaired by alcohol in 2009. One of those was 11-year-old Leandra Rosado, who was killed when Carmen Huertas got behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of .132.
Leandra's mother never will get the chance to pick her up from soccer or anywhere else.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the typical drunk driver has driven drunk at least 80 times before her first arrest. Another study indicates that more than 50 percent of drunk drivers continue to drive after their licenses have been suspended.
But Longwell even opposes mandating ignition interlocks for convicted drunk drivers -- if they are merely first offenders.
Rather than catching a drunk driver once she's killed someone, doesn't it make more sense to stop her before she gets behind the wheel?
Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-partisan good government group. For more information on CREW's work regarding Berman & Co., visit bermanexposed.org.