The news that FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt was arrested for driving while intoxicated on Saturday (December 3) raises some interesting questions. The news didn’t erupt until today, and Babbitt’s bosses at the Department of Transportation issued a statement, saying, “Administrator Babbitt has requested, effective immediately, to take a leave of absence from the FAA. That request has been granted and Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta will serve as acting administrator. DOT officials are in discussions with legal counsel about Administrator Babbitt’s employment status.”
The immediate reaction from colleagues I’ve spoken to has been, how could the head of a major agency like the FAA allow himself to get into such trouble? Doesn’t he know better? Shouldn’t he, although he wasn’t flying an airplane, abide by the eight-hour bottle-to-throttle regulation?
The situation will work itself out in the courts and between Babbitt and the City of Fairfax (Va.) police and his employers at the DOT and the FAA in the coming weeks. But I can’t help wondering why attitudes about drinking and driving have still not changed.
Despite many awful tragedies involving drunk drivers, years of research, endless exhortations not to drink and drive, people who we think ought to know better still drink and drive. Thankfully, Babbitt didn’t crash or cause anyone else to crash or get injured.
What Babbitt’s situation does illustrate is the gigantic gray area that drinking and driving represents. For example, after how many drinks is one driving under the influence? The DUI chart show five drinks for a 200-pound person to reach the 0.08 limit in Virginia (and most states).
But DUI is not the same as drinking and driving, although the two are often connected.
My wife and I wondered about how to present the idea of drinking and driving to our kids. After all, if we went to a dinner party and had a glass of wine, in their minds, we would have been drinking and driving to drive home. We decided to eliminate the gray area, at least in our family, by making a rule that one parent could drink and the other drive, and even if the drinking parent had one sip of alcohol, he or she wouldn’t be able to drive afterwards.
It may sound pedantic and even stupid (and I’m sure some of our friends shook their heads at us after we left their parties), but this rule completely prevents any question of whether drinking was involved, were we to have an accident or tap another car in a parking lot or get stopped by the police for any reason.
So it kind of makes me wonder, at many of the industry events that I attend (including the holiday parties that are just now taking place), how do people rationalize drinking and driving? How many drinks do they allow themselves? What will they tell the cops if they get pulled over? Does it really take three or four or five drinks to exceed the limit? How do you know? And if you have an accident and you had, say three drinks, do you know for sure that alcohol didn’t play a role?
It’s sad that Babbitt allegedly exceeded the Virginia limits and that he wasn’t more careful. But I also respect Babbitt for having the right attitude after he was caught, cooperating with the arresting officer and fairly quickly standing down from his post at the FAA while this matter is resolved.
I’d be more impressed if Babbitt would publicly admit to his mistake and offer some clarity on the issue of drinking and driving. Something like: “Drinking and driving means having a drink and driving an automobile. I would never do that in an airplane. I shouldn’t have done it in my car. Don’t do it.”