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

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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

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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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The board has previously recommended states require all convicted drunken drivers install the interlock devices in their vehicles as a condition to resume driving. Currently, 17 states and two California counties require all convicted drivers use the devices.

However, only about a quarter of drivers ordered to use the devices actually end up doing so, the board said. Drivers use a variety of ways to evade using the devices, including claiming they won't drive at all or don't own a vehicle and therefore don't need the devices, the board said.

The board recommended the safety administration develop a program to encourage states to ensure all convicted drivers actually use the devices. The board also recommended that all suspected drunken drivers whose licenses are confiscated by police be required to install interlocks as a condition of getting their licenses reinstated even though they haven't yet been convicted of a crime.

Courts usually require drivers to pay for the devices, which cost about $50 to $100 to buy plus a $50 a month fee to operate, staff said.

The board has previously called on the safety administration and the auto industry to step up their research into technology for use in all vehicles that can detect whether a driver has elevated blood alcohol without the driver breathing into a tube or taking any other action. Drivers with elevated levels would be unable to start their cars.

But the technology is still years away.

Studies show more than 4 million people a year in the U.S. drive while intoxicated, but about half of the intoxicated drivers stopped by police escape detection, the NTSB report said. The board also recommended expanded use of passive alcohol devices by police. The devices are often contained in real flash lights or shaped to look like a cellphone that officers wear on their shirt pockets or belts. If an officer points the flashlight at a driver or the cellphone-like device comes in close proximity to an intoxicated driver, the devices will alert police who may not have any other reason to suspect drunken driving.

The use of the devices currently is very limited, the report said.

Dramatic progress was made in the 1980s through the mid-1990s after the minimum drinking age was raised to 21 and the legally-allowable maximum level of drivers' blood alcohol content was lowered to .08, the report said. Today, drunken driving claims nearly 10,000 lives a year, down from 21,000 in 1982. At that time, alcohol-related fatalities accounted for 48 percent of highway deaths.

The board made its recommendations on the 25th anniversary of one of the nation's deadliest drunken driving accidents in Carrollton, Ky. A drunk driver drove his pickup on the wrong side of a highway, collided with a bus and killed 27 people, 24 of them children. The children were part of a church youth group on their way home after spending the day at an amusement park.

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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