MADD vs. Rick Berman's American Beverage Institute: Who's right about drunken driving?

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 29 2011 8:10 AM

Mad at MADD

Alcohol merchants say you shouldn't donate to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Really?

Rick Berman on "The Rachel Maddow Show."
Rick Berman, executive director of the American Beverage Institute

Finally, somebody has the guts to take on Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

"Mothers Against Drunk Driving Receives Another 'D' from Charity Rating Guide," shouts the Aug. 24 press release. It notes that the guide's publisher, the American Institute of Philanthropy, "says most highly efficient charities are able to spend 75 percent or more of total expenses on charitable programs. Yet, MADD has spent as little as 61 percent on programs."

Sixty-one percent versus 75 percent? That doesn't sound great, but it doesn't sound awful, either. So why the press release?

Look at who's issuing the release: the American Beverage Institute.

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ABI calls itself "a restaurant trade association, representing America's favorite restaurant chains as well as hundreds of individual restaurants and on-premise retailers." It stands for "the protection of responsible on-premise consumption of adult beverages." In other words, ABI doesn't represent the alcohol industry. It represents places where you might go to drink alcohol before getting in your car to drive home.

Hence its war on MADD. ABI wants to weaken drunken-driving regulation by persuading MADD's donors to stop giving money to the organization. To discourage them, ABI argues that MADD has wasted donations and "diverted money" from programs to get "drunk drivers off the roads."

It's a touching plea. But if MADD were truly ineffective, ABI would be happy to let MADD's donors go on wasting their money. ABI is trying to defund MADD not because MADD diverts money from drunken-driving crackdowns, but because MADD spends money on drunken-driving crackdowns.

Over the years, ABI has fought MADD on nearly every alcohol-related issue, from liquor taxes to sobriety checkpoints. Often, the merits are debatable. But ABI doesn't argue for moderation. Like the National Rifle Association, it opposes any restriction, no matter how reasonable. Consider interlocks, which can prevent a car from starting if its driver's breath, as measured by a sensor, exceeds a proscribed blood-alcohol limit. ABI opposes the use of these devices not just for the general public but even for "first-time DUI offenders" with blood-alcohol concentrations below 0.15 percent. (The legal threshold for DUI is 0.08 percent.) *  ABI complains that "legislatures are steadily approving legislation aimed at first-time offenders, often drivers who are only one sip above the limit. … This legislation is the first step of anti-alcohol groups toward their long-term goal of universal interlocks."

This extremism is part of a broader pattern. In addition to MADD, ABI is waging PR wars against the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and other organizations with "very radical agendas." ABI's executive director, Rick Berman, runs a network of lobbying groups that oppose regulation of animal welfare, soda, corn syrup, indoor tanning, and mercury in fish. Berman's Web sites condemn the Humane Society of the United States and claim that the "anti-cancer benefits" of tanning "far outweigh the risks associated with over-exposure." In defense of public smoking, Berman asserts a "lack of evidence that second-hand smoke causes cancer."

Unlike MADD, Berman doesn't reveal his donors. But over the years, investigative journalists have identified some of them, including Coca-Cola, Wendy's, White Castle, and Outback Steakhouse. And thanks to documents exposed by the 1998 tobacco settlement, you can read Berman's 1995 letters to Philip Morris, in which he obtained $600,000 in seed money for his PR empire by pledging "to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists." In total, Philip Morris gave Berman nearly $3 million during the three years covered by the documents.

I don't know enough about MADD's finances to tell you whether MADD is the best investment of your charitable dollars. I recommend reading MADD's annual reports and tax forms before making that decision. But after researching Berman and his various front groups, I can say this: Any organization Berman has vilified is probably worth giving money to.

MADD admits it could be more efficient—we "continue to streamline our efforts to be fiscally responsible"—but it cites the poor economy as a big reason for its troubles. Even ABI acknowledges that MADD's top salaries became a bigger share of its spending in part because, during the tenure of MADD's former chief executive, Chuck Hurley—possibly the greatest CEO name ever—"MADD's revenue declined nearly one-quarter," forcing layoffs and program cuts. The logical solution would be to give MADD more money, not less, so that MADD can increase the percentage of revenue it spends on fighting drunken driving. Or, if you're one of Berman's funders, you could cut him off, thereby reducing the money MADD has to waste on overcoming his smears.

But if you decide not to give money to MADD, I'd suggest reallocating your dollars to any of the other nonprofits Berman and ABI have denounced as radical do-gooders, such as the Humane Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. I don't always agree with these organizations, or with MADD. But if they're pissing off Rick Berman, they must be doing something right.

Correction, Aug. 29, 2011: I originally ended the quote about ABI's interlock position after "offenders." ABI managing director Sarah Longwell argues that I should have included the whole line: ABI is " against ignition interlocks for first-time DUI offenders with low BAC." In retrospect, I think she's right. My point was, and is, that ABI's position against interlocks is extreme because it extends to people who have already been caught driving with blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit. But, to be fair, it does not extend to all such people.

Although ABI's page of position statements does not define "low BAC" or state its preferred threshold, Longwell, in an email, clarifies ABI's position as follows:

ABI supports mandating in-car breathalyzers for drivers caught with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over 0.15 percent (even if it's their first time) or those with a previous drunk-driving offense. However, for someone whose impairment level is below .15 on their first offense, a judge should be trusted to decide whether an ignition interlock is an appropriate punishment. It's wrong to say that ABI opposes interlocks for first-time offenders; rather, ABI supports judicial discretion in the case of low-BAC, first-time offenders.

(Return to the corrected sentence.)

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