DRUNKEN driving stories, like those in the July 16 Daily News (

"Vehicle Device Thwarts DUI Offenders"

and

"Losing Control: Philly Beset by High Rate of Drunken Driving"

), make headlines every day.

Groups like MADD relentlessly remind Americans that the abuse of alcohol continues to be a huge problem on our roadways and, as a result, the most drastic measures are needed. Though truly "drunken" driving is a serious issue, much of the reported problem is little more than PR.

Consider fatality statistics. The number of deaths that activist groups attribute to drunken driving is grossly exaggerated.

Last year, federal statisticians classified almost 18,000 deaths as "alcohol-related." But alcohol-related does not mean alcohol-caused. In fact, that figure includes anyone killed in a crash in which at least one person (driver, pedestrian, cyclist, etc.) was estimated to have any alcohol. (If a sober driver recklessly crashes into and kills a family whose driver had enjoyed a glass of wine, statistics reflect all their deaths as "alcohol-related.")

In reality, the figure reflects a much broader spectrum of casualties: people under the legal limit, drunk pedestrians, impaired cyclists and others. After accounting for those people, actual innocent victims only make up 12 percent of the widely reported statistic - a considerably smaller amount than activists have led us to believe.

The anti-alcohol lobby has also invented fantastical talking points to bolster their bunk traffic stats. One of its favorites ("first offenders drive drunk on average 87 times before they are caught"), goes so far as to accuse individuals of criminal acts with absolutely no proof.

The truth is that this widely publicized figure comes from rough estimates of self-reported data - commonly criticized as unreliable. Collected from a small sample almost 13 years ago, even the study's own authors admit the estimates are "crude."

In the '90s, these groups used another "crude" statistic to convince the public that reducing the legal blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 to 0.08 percent would save 600 to 800 lives annually. Today, research proves it didn't work.

Their 0.08 push failed to have any measurable effects on fatality rates. It only lowered the threshold for qualifying as a "drunken" driver, ignoring the fact that the majority of "drunks" wreaking havoc on our roads drive while more than double the 0.08 limit. One study in Contemporary Economic Policy concluded that 0.08 efforts would have been better spent encouraging effective measures against chronic drunken drivers.

Pennsylvania's anti-alcohol groups aren't heeding that warning. Instead, they're demanding more funding, more legislation, and more manpower for other misguided measures, like sobriety checkpoints.

These roadblocks are based on the idea that it's more important to look "tough on drunk driving" than to actually go after the drunks. Checkpoints don't catch many (if any) drunken drivers.

COMPARE THAT to the impact of roving police patrols - a tactic that catches 10 times more drunken drivers than roadblocks.

In fact, last year, Pennsylvania State Police arrested a record number of people - 15,583 - for driving under the influence. How did they do it? By taking part in roving patrols to identify and arrest operators who were driving under the influence.

But you won't hear anti-alcohol activists repeat that stat. They're no longer targeting "drunken" drivers, aiming instead to eliminate any drinking before driving.

Right now, the 176 million responsible Americans who drink in moderation can still safely (and legally) drive home after enjoying a drink. Furthermore, research shows that drivers who talk on cell phones, drive drowsy or travel 7 mph above the speed limit pose a larger threat than those who enjoy a few drinks (and stay below 0.08) before driving home.

Disregarding the evidence, the anti-alcohol movement's invented, inflated and distorted "facts" would have the public believe that there should be no legal limit except "zero." This is the reason we all think one thing, when the reality is another. *

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C., an association of restaurants committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages.