Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended lowering the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) allowed for American drivers from the current 0.08 to 0.05. Today the Chicago Tribune reports on the debate over this issue.
At the core of concerns about 0.05 is the tricky issue of when alcohol impairment becomes criminally negligent. How does slight alcohol impairment differ from impairment caused by drowsiness, cellphone use, medication, aging or other conditions? Is it reckless to get behind the wheel after two glasses of wine at a dinner party? A large beer at a Blackhawks game? A couple of cocktails at a reception?
Slight alcohol impairment does not, in fact, differ greatly from the other types of impairments listed. The difference is that drinking and driving is ALWAYS a choice, 100% of the time. If you have a couple of cocktails at a reception (i.e an occasion with little or no food involved) then get in your car within an hour, that is absolutely reckless. If you are not smart enough to limit yourself to one drink…or plan to give yourself some time to sober up, I simply do not want you on the same road as me and my loved ones.
Naturally, the alcohol industry is prepared to stand against any change.
But the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurant and bar owners, calls the 0.05 recommendation an effort to “criminalize perfectly responsible behavior,” saying that less than 1 percent of traffic fatalities in the U.S. are caused by drivers with a BAC from 0.05 to 0.08. The organization points to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data showing that 70 percent of drunken driving deaths involve a driver with a BAC of 0.15 or higher.
In making its recommendation in May, the NTSB noted that more than 100 countries, including many in Europe, have set 0.05 as the legal limit of intoxication and experienced significant drops in traffic fatalities after doing so. Drunken driving accounts for nearly 10,000 traffic fatalities a year in the U.S.
“The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured,” the NTSB’s Hersman said in recommending the lower level.
Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, contends the NTSB research lacks context. The significantly greater risk that the NTSB points out is no different than the risk that accompanies listening to a loud car radio or having a passenger talking to the driver, she said.
Emphasizing other countries that set their legal definition of intoxication at 0.05 is “an apples to oranges comparison” to the U.S., Longwell said. Many of those countries have “vastly different” driving, mass transit and drinking cultures, she said. In addition, the countries imposed “other draconian measures,” including random breath testing, that contributed to the decline in traffic fatalities and would be unacceptable in the U.S., Longwell added.
A couple of points need to be made here:
1) lf “less than 1 percent of traffic fatalities in the U.S. are caused by drivers with a BAC from 0.05 to 0.08”, that is still over 300 deaths each and every year. A simple change in the law is not going to instantly prevent all or even most of these deaths, but the status quo is not likely to prevent any of them.
2) We can say with great certainly that over 10,000 people will die this year in drunk driving related incidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collects these statistics. My online research has not be able to determine the annual number of traffic deaths related to loud radios and passenger conversations. While I have no doubt that these things DO lead to accidents on a regular basis, to equate them to alcohol impaired driving as the industry spokeswoman has done here is ridiculous.
3) Any time the United States is compared to other countries, there is always someone there to complain of “apples to oranges”. It is a fact that many other countries have “vastly different” driving, mass transit and drinking cultures. I would like to suggest that every man woman and child in the United States would be better off if we strove to emulate these other cultures. It CAN be done. If I had told you 12 years ago tonight that smoking would be virtually eliminated from indoor (and many outdoor!) public places from sea to shining sea by 2010, you might very well have scoffed that the culture would never allow it! I think we can also agree that “sobriety check points” across the US are a de facto form of random testing in any case.
In case you haven’t figured out by now, I strongly support lowering the legal limit to what it is in virtually every other country in the world. There is no question that blood alcohol levels affect people of different ages and sizes quite differently, and that some (many?) experienced drivers pose no risk to public safety at a BAC of 0.05-0.07. I just think that asking these drinkers to plan for a designated driver or call a cab (or use one of the proliferating cab-alternative apps) is not to much to ask in the process of changing the culture.
There is a lot more to the article than what I have quoted here, so if this is a topic of interest to you please read the whole thing.