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Some Georgia senators opposed to a controversial bill aimed at relaxing alcohol sales laws on Sundays made an interesting case Wednesday.
They argued there will be more drunken driving in Georgia on Sundays.
"You’re going to have... more deaths, more injuries if we pass this bill," said Sen. Bill Cowsert, a Republican from Athens.
Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, cited a study that found an increase in crashes and fatalities after Sunday liquor sales were eased in New Mexico.
Sen. Vincent Fort, who said access to liquor is already "prolific" in some neighborhoods, repeated McKoon’s numbers.
"You do the math," said Fort, a Democrat from Atlanta.
Georgians can drink alcohol at bars and restaurants on Sundays, but they can’t buy it at retail stores. A bill that sets the stage to allow retail stores to sell beer, liquor and wine on Sundays was passed by the Senate on Wednesday by a 32-22 margin. The bill still must be passed by the House, and Gov. Nathan Deal has indicated he would sign legislation allowing local communities to vote on whether to allow stores to sell beer, liquor and wine on Sundays.
Our question isn’t whether the bill will pass. We wondered whether these senators are correct about the potential traffic impact of Sunday liquor sales.
Drexel University associate professor Mark Stehr has done several studies on the impact of easing so-called "blue laws." In June, he released a study called "The Effect of Sunday Sales of Alcohol on Highway Crash Fatalities."
That study focused on 13 states that either eased or repealed Sunday liquor laws between 1995 and 2005, using data from the federal government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Those states were Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington.
Stehr said other past studies have reached mixed conclusions, but said many of them were outdated, focused solely on one state and failed to consider other traffic factors. Stehr’s study noted that alcohol-related crashes increased in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia, when alcohol sales laws were eased. But those changes came in 1979 and 1984, respectively, before the now-familiar campaigns advising motorists not to drink and drive.
Stehr used alcohol-related fatalities in nearly every state between 1990 and 2008. He recorded an alcohol-related fatality if either a police officer reported that alcohol was involved in the accident or if a blood alcohol test recorded any alcohol in the driver’s blood.
His conclusion? Stehr found no clear evidence of an increase in traffic fatalities in states that repealed Sunday bans on alcohol. His research found no statistically significant increase in beer sales in those states, but a 2.9 percent increase in the sales of liquor. PolitiFact Georgia covered some of this ground in a Feb. 22 fact-checkon the potential economic impact of changing liquor laws in Georgia.
"I think it’s unlikely that Georgia would experience much of an uptick," Stehr told us.
Stehr found New Mexico was the only state that saw an increase (21 percent) in fatalities after changing its Sunday alcohol laws.
As governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue used New Mexico as a basis for his opposition to changing Georgia’s blue laws in a 2008 op-ed. He cited a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (not conducted by Stehr) that found a 29 percent increase in Sunday crashes and a 42 percent rise in traffic fatalities after New Mexico changed its laws.
University of Georgia economics lecturer Jason Rudbeck co-wrote a study that found (with the help of a group that supports changing Georgia’s laws) "no effect" in alcohol-related crashes and fatalities once New Mexico changed its blue laws. He observed New Mexico also raised its speed limit on some roads to 75 mph around the same time the Sunday sales laws were changed, a factor also noted by Stehr.
Rudbeck said, and Stehr agrees, that many people who drink at bars and restaurants on Sundays wind up doing so at home when alcohol laws are charged, thus there is a lesser chance of alcohol-related wrecks.
Stehr noted that federal data shows New Mexico was second only to Montana in the ratio of alcohol-related to all fatal traffic crashes between 1990 and 2008. The professor believes New Mexico was unique from other states he studied because of the speed limit increase, longer driving distances and a higher rate of drunken driving than other states, as shown by the federal data.
In 2008, Colorado eased its Sunday alcohol sales laws. There, the number of drunken driving deaths on highways on Sundays declined, from 20 in 2009 to six in 2010, and fewer drunken-driving tickets were issued, state officials said.
Most research shows there’s little evidence that there will be a major spike in alcohol-related wrecks and fatalities on Georgia’s roads if it changed its Sunday alcohol laws. Colorado, in fact, has found fewer wrecks after changing its Sunday alcohol laws. The New Mexico study cited by Perdue and McKoon has been criticized as flawed.
PolitiFact Georgia found no irrefutable proof that easing Sunday alcohol restrictions "will result" in more traffic crashes and fatalities as some Georgia state senators argued earlier this week.
We rate the senators’ claim False.
Study by professor Mark Stehr, "The Effect of Sunday Sales of Alcohol on Highway Crash Fatalities," June 2010
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Sunday sales bill earns historic passage in Senate," March 16, 2011
PolitiFact Georgia, "Georgia can bring in big bucks by ending booze ban, group says," Feb. 22, 2011
Study by Jason Rudbeck and Michael Maloney, "The outcome from legalizing Sunday packaged alcohol sales on traffic accidents in New Mexico," June 18, 2009
Sonny Perdue, "The Tragic Cost of Sunday Alcohol Sales," March 27, 2008
Telephone interview with University of Georgia economics lecturer Jason Rudbeck, March 16, 2011
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