A May hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) produced ideas for reducing drinking and driving deaths, among the ideas, lowering the alcohol limit legal for driving from .08 to .05 blood alcohol concentration (BAC). One hundred other countries have lower BAC limits for driving than the U.S. The idea is being debated around the country because the board has no authority to make the recommendation a law.
The last time the NTSB recommended a BAC change (from .10 to .08) it took two decades and the threat of Congress withholding highway funds for the idea to become law in all 50 states. An Indiana state legislator, Senator Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, predicts that is what it will take again. “If you look at the percentile drops, it’s a pretty significant drop in the legal driving limit for drunk driving. It’s going to be something not necessarily real popular, based on what I saw last time.”
Georgia lawmakers are perusing data from an Atlanta Journal Constitution series that showed in 2001, when the state was at a .10 limit, there were 406 alcohol-related road deaths and in 2008, at .08, there were 416. There were fewer motorists in 2001 however.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an expected ally of the proposed lower limit, is not behind it, instead focusing on its own three-pronged agenda for reducing impaired driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also opposes the change to .05. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill say, “Leave it to the states to decide.”
The states so far have voiced resistance. The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, says expect push back because, “It was very difficult to get .08 in most states so lowering it again won’t be popular,” according to Jonathan Adkins, an official with the states’ group. “The focus in the states is on high content offenders as well as repeat offenders. We expect industry will also be very vocal about keeping the limit at .08.”
The industry, via the American Beverage Institute, expectedly called the proposal “ludicrous.”
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead told the Associated Press he would prefer to increase penalties for drunken drivers, but he is willing to study the recommendation. However, Mike Moser, of the State Liquor Association, said the change could criminalize social drinking. Moser said it makes more sense to crack down on heavy drinkers who are more dangerous behind the wheel, an idea that does not register with a Chicago trauma surgeon who notes impairment begins far earlier than severe intoxication. Dr. Thomas Esposito, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns in the Department of Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center, says, “The rationalization by critics that it penalizes the person who only occasionally has ‘one too many’ or who only drinks ‘socially’ makes no sense. One too many is just that; it’s about impairment, not the number of drinks.”
Lab research indicates at 0.02 to 0.05 BAC, the ability to see or locate moving lights correctly is reduced as is reaction time and the ability to judge distance. Even if not obviously impaired, at 0.05 BAC drivers are twice as likely to have a crash as before they started drinking…At 0.08 BAC drivers are five times more likely to have a crash than before they started drinking. Over .08, the crash likelihood jumps to 10 times that of a sober driver. (See the article “What 53 feet means” for more on driver impairment.)
Highway alcohol-related deaths are 100 percent preventable. Passive alcohol detectors can measure a driver’s BAC before starting the vehicle and render it unable to start. If the driver is intoxicated, he isn’t driving. Critics claim the technology has not been perfected. However, the technology already exists for the non-invasive technique (See “Fingerprint scanner lets employers check workers for alcohol”), although the public appetite for the device does not.
Mandating these in-car alcohol detectors – the way seatbelts and airbags are required in U.S. cars – was among the 20 ideas the NTSB proposed at the same time as lowering the BAC threshold for drinking and driving. Detroit automakers have been testing in-dash systems since June 2012. The idea was suggested three years ago in the book What the Early Worm Gets as the way to conclusively eliminate all drinking and driving accidents.
“Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. “They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.”
In 2011, 9,858 people were killed, 350,000 injured and $132 billion spent as a result of “alcohol-related” crashes. To Esposito’s point, such classification does not mean the driver was over the .08 BAC limit, although usually that is the case, only that alcohol was present at the scene or detected on the breath or blood. No determination has to be made regarding level of intoxication, alcohol abuse or the disease of alcoholism but 4 million motorists admit to driving while impaired, according to NTSB estimates.