May 14, 2013

Tougher drunken driving threshold recommended

Reducing the blood-alcohol limit to .05 – as it is is most other first-world countries – could save more than 7,000 lives a year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — States should cut their threshold for drunken driving by nearly half – from .08 blood alcohol level to .05 –matching a standard that has substantially reduced highway deaths in other countries, a federal safety board recommended Tuesday. That's about one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man.

Today's poll: Blood-alcohol testing

Should states reduce the legal blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving to .05, rather than the current .08?

Yes

No

View Results

click image to enlarge

In this Feb. 7, 2013 file photo, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Deborah Hersman speaks during a news conference in Washington. Federal accident investigators were weighing a recommendation Tuesday that states reduce their threshold for drunken driving from the current .08 blood alcohol content to .05, a standard that has been shown to substantially reduce highway deaths in other countries. Hersman said. “Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.” (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

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More than 100 countries have adopted the .05 alcohol content standard or lower, according to a report by the staff of the National Transportation Safety Board. In Europe, the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped, the report said.

NTSB officials said it wasn't their intention to prevent drivers from having a glass of wine with dinner, but they acknowledged that under a threshold as low as .05 the safest thing for people who have only one or two drinks is not to drive at all.

A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 80-proof alcohol in most studies.

Alcohol concentration levels as low as .01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and levels as low as .05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, the board said.

New approaches are needed to combat drunken driving, which claims the lives of about a third of the more than 30,000 people killed each year on U.S highways — a level of carnage that that has remained stubbornly consistent for the past decade and a half, the board said.

"Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. "Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."

An alcohol concentration threshold of .05 is likely to meet strong resistance from states, said Jonathan Adkins, an official with the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

"It was very difficult to get .08 in most states so lowering it again won't be popular," Adkins said. "The focus in the states is on high (blood alcohol content) offenders as well as repeat offenders. We expect industry will also be very vocal about keeping the limit at .08."

Even safety groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and AAA declined Tuesday to endorse NTSB's call for a .05 threshold. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets national safety policy, stopped also short of endorsing the board's recommendation.

"NHTSA is always interested in reviewing new approaches that could reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road, and will work with any state that chooses to implement a .05 BAC law to gather further information on that approach," the safety administration said in a statement.

The board recommended NHTSA established "incentive grants" designed to encourage states to adopt the lower threshold.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that 7,082 deaths would have been prevented in 2010 if all drivers on the road had blood alcohol content below .08 percent.

The lower threshold was one of nearly 20 recommendations made by the board, including that states adopt measures to ensure more widespread use of use of alcohol ignition interlock devices. Those require a driver to breathe into a tube, much like the breathalyzers police ask suspected drunken drivers to use.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Blood-alcohol testing

Should states reduce the legal blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving to .05, rather than the current .08?

Yes

No

View Results