Jan 22, 2015

How Low Will the NTSB Go With the Legal Blood Alcohol Limit?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is on a mission to lower the legal drunk driving limit to .05. For a 120-pound woman, that would spell jail time for having just one drink and then driving.

For those of us who work in the alcohol policy arena, it’s déjà vu all over again. Over a decade ago, public safety advocates convinced Congress and state lawmakers that lowering the legal limit from .1 to .08 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC) would save 500-600 lives per year. But lowering the legal limit hasn’t been the promised panacea to our nation’s drunk driving woes — alcohol related fatalities still account for approximately one-third of all traffic deaths, a figure that hasn’t budged since .08’s passage.

There’s an obvious reason why the move to .08 didn’t have the life-saving impact that advocates hoped it would: Most accidents don’t happen when the driver’s BAC is between .08 and .10. And they certainly don’t happen when it is between .05 and .08. Rather, over 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities are caused by drivers with a BAC limit of .15 or higher.

It’s these high-BAC drunk drivers we must target with our laws if we want to take a serious bite out of the drunk driving problem. Only one percent of traffic fatalities are caused by drivers with BAC levels between .05 and .08, so by what twisted logic does it make sense to focus our efforts on those drivers?

The NTSB is the first federal traffic agency to officially endorse a .05 legal limit. The American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and other public health organizations already support a lower standard. Interestingly, some of the other usual suspects haven’t jumped on board. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have declined to endorse the policy — at least for now.

But we know how quickly that tide can turn. Just look at the .08 battle as reference. The NTSB officially endorsed .08 in 1982, only a year before Utah became the first state to adopt .08. (MADD was founded in 1980, just as the .08 battle began.) Many federal agencies weren’t yet on-board with lowering the limit, but with the NTSB’s stamp of approval, lawmakers began proposing and slowly passing legislation to drop legal limits. (Unsurprisingly, shortly after the .05 recommendation was announced by the NTSB, five states proposed bills to lower the limit.)

It wasn’t until 1998 that Congress started offering states cash to lower their limits. That was the carrot, but the stick soon followed. In 2000, Congress passed a law heavily penalizing states that did not pass .08, by withholding highway funding. At that point, 19 states had .08 laws on the books. Once Congress threatened state budgets, it only took four years for the remaining states to fall in line and adopt .08.

And so, .05 could follow a similar path, slowly gaining traction in a handful of states (Utah, again, may very well be first) before Congress decides to come off the sidelines just as it did back in 1998 and provide incentives to states willing to make the move.

It would certainly be a mistake if they did. By nearly halving the legal limit, we would create a new category of criminals who today are considered moderate and responsible drinkers. The field sobriety tests currently used to determine impairment by police would no longer be useful because most drivers with a .05 BAC level wouldn’t show any signs of being impaired. And our already crowded court system would be clogged with women who had little more than a single drink with dinner before driving home.

But that wouldn’t be the worst of it. Most depressingly, public safety advocates will have missed the point entirely, having been focused on a cohort of responsible drinkers posing little to no threat on the roadways while failing to devote resources to getting actual drunk drivers off our roads and making us all truly more safe.

Source: The American Beverage Institute, ABIonline.org, Sun-Sentinel