Fed Agency Recommends Lower Drunk Driving Limit; Adoption Unlikely
A federal agency has recommended lowering the legal limit for a driver’s blood alcohol concentration from the current 0.08 to a maximum 0.05.
The proposed change is the first on a list of several recommendations put forth in Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving, published recently by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB’s 104-page report is available here: “Reaching Zero”).
Will It Happen?
It is unlikely that the tougher drunk driving limit will be adopted any time soon. The NTSB is a federal agency that has no authority to make laws. Drunk driving limits are set by the individual states. The current limit in all 50 states is 0.08.
The majority of states had a higher drunk driving limit until 2000, when all states began conforming to the 0.08 standard in response to a federal law that withheld highway construction funds from states that failed to adopt the tougher standard. That law was passed after a multi-year push by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other anti-drunk driving organizations.
The new NTSB report recommends awarding incentive grants to states that now switch to the lower 0.05 limit. However, the NTSB has no authority to create the grants itself, and there is no indication that Congress is likely to put any muscle behind the lower drunk driving limit in the foreseeable future.
Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving has not responded with enthusiasm to the NTSB recommendation. MADD President Jan Withers said:
“The issue with lowering the legal limit is that it will take a lot of effort for a potential result that is many, many years down the line.”
Similarly, the Governors Highway Safety Association is not getting on the lower limit bandwagon. Said GHSA spokesman Jonathan Adkins:
“When the limit was .10, it was very difficult to get it lowered to 0.08. We don’t expect any state to go to .05.”
Although some states may consider adopting the lower limit, Oklahoma is not expected to be one of them. The Tulsa World recently editorialized against the proposal, saying:
“A 0.05 BAC [blood alcohol concentration] is not a magic number. Lowering the BAC would criminalize the previously legal behavior of many moderate or social drinkers when evidence suggests the focus should be on heavy and habitual drinkers, reportedly the bigger culprits in causing alcohol-related deaths and injuries.”
Deaths, Injuries, Costs
The NTSB’s Reaching Zero report contains numerous statistics on “alcohol-impaired driving,” meaning driving in which the driver is legally drunk (blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher). According to the report:
• 9,878 people died in 2011 in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers.
• About one-third (31%) of all highway fatalities are due to alcohol-impaired driving.
• Lowering the blood alcohol limit to 0.05 would save an estimated 500 to 800 lives a year.
• 173,000 people were injured in accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers, including 27,000 people who received incapacitating injuries.
• About 4 million individuals each year drive while alcohol-impaired. Because they do so repeatedly, it is estimated that there are 112 million alcohol-impaired driving episodes — times when someone is driving drunk — each year.
• Alcohol-impaired driving costs the public $66 billion annually in monetary costs alone, which does not include quality-of-life losses.
• The vast majority of countries around the world already have a blood alcohol limit for drivers of 0.05 or lower.
How Drunk is 0.05?
Some opponents of changing the legal limit, such as the Tulsa World editorial cited above, argue that some responsible social drinkers whose driving is not actually impaired might be found in violation of the reduced limit. Which raises the question, how much would a person have to drink to have a blood alcohol content of 0.05?
According to several sources, a 180-pound man could consume three beers or glasses of wine in 90 minutes without reaching the lower 0.05 limit, and a 130-pound woman could consume two drinks in 90 minutes and remain under the lower limit.
The NTSB said in its report that the goal should be zero alcohol-impaired driving crashes, fatalities and injuries. Toward that end, the agency also recommended:
• Increased use of alcohol ignition interlock devices. Such devices use a mechanism installed on a dashboard that is similar to a breathalyzer and prevents the vehicle from being started by an impaired driver.
• Increased high-visibility enforcement of impaired driving laws, for example, random sobriety checkpoints.
• Using passive alcohol sensors. Such sensors can detect the presence of alcohol vapors, even several feet away, and thus tip off officers off to the possibility of a drunk driver. Unlike a breathalyzer or blood test, a passive sensor can be used without a driver’s cooperation.
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